I find there are an infinite number of possibilities in our individual and collective lives.  Some are tangible—events, occurrences, projects, acquisition of material things.  Some are intangible—attitudes, ideas, plans, philosophies.  There are three potential outcomes for each possibility—positive, negative, and nothing.

We each have a list of tangible and intangible items that we care about and can influence.  For me, the top priority is the well-being of and my relationships with my family and friend.  My list also includes my job, selected community and social issues, civility, and writing my blog among others. My possessions and my tennis game might be on the list except they are not important enough to me to muddy the water of my priorities.  I will deal with those as I have time, but more important issues that are worthy of listing come first.

I also care about some other things—the Cincinnati Bengals, the Indiana Hoosiers, Woody Allen movies, the incompetence of our government, the decaying state of the world, and a list too long to bore you with.  But those are matters that I cannot influence beyond attending, voting, and advocating.  I believe time spent attempting to influence their outcomes is pretty much time wasted.

If you take the time to think about it, you will come up with your own lists.  We will probably have some items in common and some of an entirely different nature from one another.

I really buy into the serenity prayer used by all the compulsive anonymous groups.  “Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”

From my first list, I identify my short- and long-term priorities.  Which few are urgent or for which my passion is at a peak?  I should address those today and this month.  Which ones are not urgent but ones I need to keep my eye on and bring them to my short-term list at some point in the future?

Now I have a relatively short list of subjects that have these characteristics:

  • They can be tangible or intangible.
  • They are urgent and/or particularly important to me now.
  • I can see a way that the energy and thinking I invest in a given item can influence the outcome.

There are virtually no subjects of the importance required to be on the list that I can accomplish on my own.  Almost all need the participation of other people or organizations.  I may contribute by leading, following, or advising, but virtually never will I be acting alone.  There are some accomplishments of which I am most proud in my life.  The biggest ones are as follows.

  • Helping to guide my children to grow to be happy, productive, self-supporting citizens possessing the highest moral and ethical values each with great families of their own
  • My love-filled marriage of fifty years
  • Leading turnarounds of manufacturing and human service organizations and my own life
  • Directing the recovery from community crises including a $5,000,000 fire and a hundred-year flood
  • Community leadership in the areas of early child development including child care and dealing with domestic violence
  • Managing the acquisition and creation of a co-location of approximately fifty human service agencies and programs on one campus to enable clients with multiple needs to access all of the services they require on a single campus.

These achievements and others are detailed in other blogs at this site and in my book Machete Moments: A Turnaround Manager–Burned Out at 54 and Turned On for the Next Eighteen Years.  (Available at and

Not one of these projects could have been completed successfully without significant participation by others.  The personal ones required the direct involvement of a relative few.  For the ones related to my career, large numbers of colleagues, sometimes hundreds, were necessary to complete the mission.

Thirty years ago, I gave a talk at the local Rotary Club where I listed the priorities for my life: family, job, community, friends.  Those four general interests drive my life.  Since 1984, I have not changed my mind; the list is still intact.  If I go to a ball game, it is always with family and/or friends.  If I write, it’s to crystalize my thinking in one of these areas or to share my thoughts with others in the hope of enlightening them.  If I go to a movie, it is always with my wife and/or grandchildren and is usually followed by dinner at a restaurant where we can bond.

Let me get to the title of the piece.  When I have an opportunity to influence the progress or the outcome of one of my priorities, I nudge.  As I explained above, I can’t succeed without the involvement of others.  Remember my observation in the first paragraph.  The potential outcomes of any action or non-action are positive, negative, and nothing.  The nudge gets the ball rolling in a positive direction.  The nudge might consist of engaging some like-minded partners, shining a light on a problem, or describing the goal line.  If the nudge is executed properly, the work will gain momentum.  From there, the detailed planning including input from associates*, individual assignments, and hard work begin.  If you have a committed team, you have an excellent chance for success.

With nudging, your potential for success is much better than with heavy-handed dictating.  Without the nudge, you risk that the outcome will be negative if someone else nudges, or nothing if there is no nudge al all.

*  Please see my article The Smartest Thing We Can Do as Leaders is to Realize We Don’t Know More than Our People…han-our-people/






40 Words of Wisdom to Give Your Child

What follows is from Rebecca Perkins, Founder, Best Knickers Always.  Here’s my addition to the piece.  Feed the basic points ( shown in red)  to your children in an age appropriate way as soon as they can understand concepts.  Not all at once, but feed them as regularly as you feed them cereal and meat and vegetables.  As they grow, continue to feed them in age appropriate ways that they can understand.  Add some of the more complicated ones.  If you are fortunate enough to be a teacher feed them to your students.  But it will only make a difference in your child’s development if you model them—all forty of them.  And by the way, feed yourself a daily dose.

40 Words of Wisdom Every Parent Needs To Give Their Child

Rebecca Perkins, Founder, Best Knickers Always

I wanted to give my eldest a different birthday present this year and seeing that ‘words’ are what I do best, I chose to pass on some wisdom that I’ve learned over the years. Who knows whether they’ll be listened to! Would I have listened to my parents at 24?

Perhaps these are words of wisdom for us all, whatever our age. Perhaps if our children are younger, we can set the intention to parent in such a way that we teach them this wisdom by example.

  1. You are not your job. You are not the amount of cash you have in the bank. You are not your possessions.
  2. Find your passion. Look for what inspires you. Find what you love to do and pursue it with all your heart. You may well find a way how to make money from doing it.
  3. Love hurts. But it is so much better than closing yourself off for fear of being hurt and not experiencing love.
  4. Communication and respect are the foundations for a lasting relationship.
  5. Three things are needed in a relationship — lust, love, and shared values.
  6. Never compare yourself to others. It’s a waste of energy. You are unique and have your own gifts to offer the world.
  7. Look after your health — physical, mental, and spiritual.
  8. Don’t complain. Decide what you will tolerate and get on with life.
  9. Set boundaries — work, family, and friendships.
  10. Little stuff matters — manners get you a long way.
  11. Be grateful. List the things you are grateful for every day.
  12. Expect to fail. Failure is not fatal. Learn the lessons, then get back up and try again.
  13. Have outrageous dreams. You’ll be amazed at what comes true.
  14. Act with integrity at all times.
  15. Call your parents. They may well have screwed up but they raised you to the best of their abilities.
  16. Know your values. Let no one violate what you hold as important be that a boss or your partner.
  17. You don’t need to have it all worked out. Tomorrow is another day.
  18. Lighten up on yourself. Breathe deeply and slowly.
  19. Listen to your inner dialogue. Would you speak to someone you love in the same way?
  20. Take risks, take leaps of faith. You’ll grow wings.
  21. Be of service to others. Be interested in others. People will always remember what you did for them.
  22. “No” is a complete sentence.
  23. Don’t stress so much over decisions. Decisions needn’t be forever.
  24. Cultivate and nurture friendships. With love and care they can last a lifetime. At the same time don’t be afraid to edit friendships.
  25. You are enough just as you are. Perfect in your imperfection.
  26. Learn to accept compliments. Simply say ‘thank you’.
  27. Be willing to show that you are vulnerable. It is in fact the greatest act of courage.
  28. You are never alone.
  29. Yourself first and then others. We are all in this together.
  30. Your attitude is always a choice.
  31. Laugh a lot. Have fun.
  32. Magic happens outside your comfort zone.
  33. Learn to love yourself now. It gets harder if you leave it until you’re older.
  34. Don’t worry about what other people think. They think about you a lot less than you imagine.
  35. Follow your intuition. Your guts have the answer. Every time.
  36. Happiness starts within. Do not expect anyone else to make you happy.
  37. Be financially savvy right from the off. Save 10%. Debt is not pretty. Make your own lunch for work. A cappuccino and a sandwich a day soon add up.
  38. Life isn’t a race. Stop and smell the roses. Really.
  39. When overwhelmed ask yourself, “Will this even be an issue in 5 years’ time?”
  40. Change happens. It’s one of the great certainties in life. Learn to roll with it.



If a human service agency is not using every volunteer it can get its hands on, it is wasting money.  An agency should consider finding a volunteer to do mailings, filing, and other such routine duties.  There are also a number of higher level jobs that can be handled by volunteers.  Depending on the organization and the skill of volunteers who embrace your cause, they might handle bookkeeping, case work that doesn’t require a specialized degree, fund raising, and marketing, to mention a few.

In business you know who your customers and your potential customers are.  You know who your suppliers are.  And you know the difference between the two.  In the nonprofit world, your donors and volunteers are both suppliers and customers.  You don’t need to convince your suppliers to sell to your manufacturing company or your store, but in a nonprofit agency, you need to sell your potential donors and volunteers on the idea of giving to your organization.  That means they are customers in that respect, but they also supply the money and volunteer time necessary for you to operate.

Now let’s consider how we can most efficiently utilize our volunteers.  Research has proven that, in many agencies, one of the wisest of expenditures is to hire a volunteer coordinator—someone whose only duty is to recruit, train, supervise, and reward volunteers.  Depending on the size of the agency, this may be a full-time or part-time position.  How about a volunteer volunteer-coordinator?  That is okay as long as the volunteer is held to the same standards of regular hours and commitment as a paid employee.  This work is too often left to whomever on the staff, from the CEO to the receptionist, has time to do it at any given moment.  Fact is nobody has time, so it is often done haphazardly.  In employing a volunteer coordinator, the agency must maintain the discipline that she is not expected to answer the phone, fill in for the receptionist, file papers, or perform any of the other duties that come up around an office.  Once you cross that line, it is a short step until you find that all you have hired is an extra pair of hands, and you are right back where you started in ensuring the proper use of volunteers.

Nothing can turn off a volunteer more than to perceive incompetence on the part of agency to which she has agreed to give her time.  What if she has been asked to come to paint a room on a Saturday, only to arrive and discover that no one is there, or no one thought to buy paint?  She will probably never be back to your agency and may decide that volunteering, in general, is a waste of their valuable time.

Volunteers need to be treated as the valuable resources they are—not as just a commodity.  Give them plenty of pats on the back and occasionally bring in lunch for them.  If the agency can afford it, have an annual dinner to celebrate them.  If you can’t afford it, find a friendly company to sponsor it.  Volunteers should receive the same level of respect as your professional colleagues.


Real customer service went away when the big box stores ran off the small independent businesses.

I’m going to tell you a story that expands upon my opening line.  You may think the request I’m going to talk about was unreasonable, and maybe it was, but the way it was handled was reprehensible.  I needed a new printer, so I went to a chain office supply store to buy one.  Oh, what the hell; I’ll never see them again, so  I have no reason to protect them.  It was Office Max.  As I was looking at their stable of printers on display, a sales rep came up to me.  I asked him some questions to determine what level of printer I needed.  He obviously knew nothing, but he tried to bullshit me by telling me what we could both read on the box–absolutely nothing more.  When I finally decided on one, he pointed to one in the box and walked away.  I then had to carry it to checkout.

When I returned to my office, I unpacked the printer and set it next to my computer.  I’m no wizard when it comes to setting up electronic equipment.  I need to read every step in the instruction manual–nothing is intuitive to me.  Within about ninety minutes, I had all the parts where they were supposed to go, had installed the software, and turned it on.  Any of my grandkids could have done it in ten.  I followed all of the prompts on its screen and printed something.  The black print had streaks.  Back to the manual, I found that I should clean the cartridge.  It said that the machine would do it on its own if I touched a certain button which I did.  Still streaks.  After performing this step four times, I installed a new cartridge.  When the streaks were still there, I went through the cleaning process again.  Then I gave up.

I went back to the store where I encountered a young checkout clerk.  I told her, “I could tell you a long story after which you would tell me I need to see a manager, so why don’t we just start there?”  She was accommodating, and told me to go to the service desk.  Within a couple minutes, a young man, about 25, showed up and said nothing.  I extended my hand and introduced myself.  He reluctantly shook my hand, but had an attitude of how dare you try to be on the same level as me.  He did not return my introduction.  What follows is a recounting of our conversation.  Each word may not be accurate, but they are close and clearly reflect the essence.  My tone throughout was calm and matter-of-fact.

I: I bought a computer here yesterday, and after I set it up, I found that the black ink streaks.

He: You should clean the cartridge like the instructions say.

I: I did that four times.  It still streaks.

He: Bring it in and we’ll change it out.

I: No, that’s not going to happen.  I’m 73 and had a stroke last year.  I’m not very strong, and once was enough to carry it and set it up.  What I want is for you to bring another one to my office and install it.

He: We don’t do that.  We have an outside contractor, but it will cost you $120.

The pity card I had played was true, but it hadn’t worked.  Sure, I carried it once and could have done it again, but now it was a principle, so I pushed it further.

I: Here’s the deal.  For ten years, I have bought every office supply and piece of electronic equipment for myself and my organization from you.  I’m far from your biggest customer, but I’ve been loyal.  If you refuse, I will never shop here again.

He: You’re not going to get anywhere by threatening me.

I: I’m not threating.  I’m just giving you the alternatives.

At no point did he know if my organization was a million dollar a year customer or a hundred.  Truth is it’s about a thousand.  He then gave one of my favorite answers in the situation.  “If we do it for you, we have to do it for everybody.”

I: Not everybody asks, and not everybody has a (arguably) legitimate reason.

He: I don’t know what you think I can do.

I: (This was the only time my words became less than civil.) You could pick up a printer and put your ass in your car and bring it to me and set it up.

He: I don’t have to take you swearing at me.

I: Okay, I’ll bring it back and get my money back, and then Office Max and I will have no further dealings.

Unreasonable–maybe; confrontational–eventually; relationship ending–absolutely.  Was a positive response to my request ever considered by the manager?  At no point.  It was not within the scope of this guy’s thinking to say to himself, “What can I do to allow me to say yes to this request?

My friends Jim and Jo Lucas owned an office supply and furniture store until ten years ago when they could no longer compete with Office Max, Walmart et al.  It was a great business.  Jim ran the business side, and Jo ran the softer side making great contributions of service to our community.  We shared a mutual loyalty that ran through three jobs of mine and twenty years.  They understood that a significant part of their business was getting close to customers, serving them, and giving back to the community  through both financial contributions and service.

And caring practices were and are not limited to small businesses.  Cummins, Inc. is an 18 billion dollar company headquartered in our small city.  They place distributorships all over the world to serve customers.  Do they make money?  Of course they do by providing quality products and top notch service.  In addition, they could not be more generous with their contributions and encouraging and enabling enabling employees to donate service to the community.

The customer service practices of Jim and Jo Lucas and Cummins, Inc. are absent from today’s chain stores and restaurants.

I’ve written and talked at length about a tenet of my personal philosophy the says, “A bias to say yes.”  Simply put, when a request is made of me, my first thought is, “How can I say yes?”  That is closely followed by, “Is there a compelling reason to say no.”  Most of the time that process leads to an affirmative answer.  If not, at least I can give a legitimate well thought out reason for refusing.

The chains stick these young people in as managers so that they won’t have to pay them very much.  Then they put them through a training program that consists of learning a set of rules by rote.  There are no lessons on how to really manage or on sensitivity to customers’ needs and desires and certainly no class on a bias to say yes.  Finally, these give the robots they have created no authority to exercise and wiggle room in the application of the rules.  The result is that customer service as I learned it no longer exists–at least not in big retail businesses.  And gone with it is America’s general loss of civility among the masses.  Are those to sad facts connected?  I believe so.  I guess that’s just the way it is in 2014, and I can’t change it.

But I do know one thing.  He might have groused about it privately, but JIM LUCAS WOULD HAVE DONE IT.



Times have changed since the 1800’s, and we haven’t.

Please stick with me as I present a crazy idea about children under six that will really make your head spin.  I will start with the recognition that what I’m going to propose is so extreme that at 73 I will never see it happen, but it should.  Discuss this idea among yourselves to see how close we can get to it.  Maybe my grandkids generation can pull it off, but the time to start movement toward it is now.

In the early days of America’s westward movement, Dad worked the land and Mom stayed home and raised the children.  It was decided that when the children reached about the age of six, they would enter a group learning environment called school.

In time, Dad found employment in the city, but Mom was still home, and the school system continued to be sufficient.  Then, before we knew it, many Moms were working outside the home.  We were introduced to a whole new set of problems that, as a society, we still haven’t come close to solving.  The need has been exacerbated by the explosion in the number of one-parent households.

Child care became a new industry.  Our children up to age nine or ten need a haven when they are not in school and no parents are home.  This industry took a wide variety of forms—grandma, Aunt Minnie, neighbors, child care centers, and homes where the resident has opened a child care business.  Some of these facilities are held to various standards, but many are not.

Today there are tens of thousands of people and places that offer one form of child care or another.  Some relatives and friends do it for free, but for most venues there is a charge.  The cost and quality of these options is all over the map, not only from format to format but within a given format.

Some places are safe, but the children are not exposed to developmental activities.  I call that a TV, a Pepsi, and a Twinkie.  Others are safe and offer age-appropriate activities and nutritional meals.  Some are neither safe nor developmental nor healthy.  Some facilities are licensed by the state and are held to specified standards.  A relative few are even accredited.  But anyone can open a rogue facility where they are held to no standards.

In most states, you can pay a year’s tuition at your state university for your 19-year-old for less than you can put your 2-year old into full-time day care at a licensed center for the same length of time.

Let me describe what we might do if we could start over with a clean sheet of paper and design a system to accommodate today’s lifestyle.  As you read it, it will become obvious that this is about as pie-in-the-sky as one can get, but please dream along with me for a few minutes.

  • Offer public school, on an optional basis, beginning at age six-months. Of course, the first few years would be the equivalent of child care and would include the age appropriate developmental activities and nutrition I mentioned earlier.  A parent who wants to stay home with his/her child would certainly be encouraged to do so.
  • Today’s mandatory rule of entering kindergarten at five or six would still be in place, but before that, parents would have a choice. Families in need of child care could exercise the in-school option and be certain that their children were receiving safe, clean, developmental care with nutritional meals.
  • The care givers would be educated in their profession so that the care would be reasonably consistent. Employment would require at least a two-year degree in child care or teaching.
  • Generate funds by charging those who can afford it for the pre-kindergarten years. Use a sliding scale much like the income tax rates. I suggest a range from free to the very low income people to full cost for those who have incomes over a certain amount.
  • Offer discounts for multiple children from the same family.

You say, “Gee, Doug, this makes so much sense, why don’t we just do it?”  Since the rules on teacher-to-child ratios are more stringent for younger children, the cost of public education would skyrocket–possibly even double.  Also, we would need an investment to expand our facilities to accommodate the increased number of children in the schools.  This “crazy”idea would cost billions more annually than today’s public education budget.  I suggest a combination of increases in some taxes and a redeployment of a big chunk of our bloated defense budget.  If we don’t turn education around, we will have nothing left to defend.

I mentioned my idea to a local school administrator.  Before I got the words out of my mouth, she screamed in protest that she already had too much to do, and this would make her job impossible.  That is the kind of short-sighted thinking that I’m afraid is all too prevalent in our school officials and the public in general.

When I mention the idea of public support of child care, the most common answer by empty-nested adults is, “I raised my kids without help from the government.  Let today’s parents do the same thing.”  Not only is it not the same world as the nineteenth century, it’s not even the same world as the sixties and seventies.  That answer is closely followed in frequency by, “They shouldn’t have had the kids if they can’t afford them.”  While there might be some truth in that in a vacuum, in reality it’s idiotic.  the kids are here.

Maybe we will never do anything as extreme as this.  We certainly aren’t ready now with our dysfunctional governments at all levels, our narrow- minded school officials, and an inflexible public.  This is an issue that won’t be solved by evolutionary actions.  We need to reinvent our education system from birth through sixth grade.  Failure to do so can only need to a continuing downward spiral in our national intellect.

Please let me know the name of any politician who will throw himself on his sword and present this idea to Congress.



I get lessons in life from some unusual places.  Throughout my career, I have observed the wisdom of the 1955 film, The Seven-Year Itch which starred Marilyn Monroe and Tom Ewell.  The premise was that Ewell’s character, after seven years of a rather routine marriage, was tempted to stray to Marilyn’s character when his wife took the kids to visit her mother for the summer.  This left him in the city with Marilyn living in the next apartment.  Even the most faithful of husbands might have had difficulty in resisting the charms of Ms. Monroe, but don’t tell wife I said that.  The lesson I took from the movie was that anything can become humdrum after seven years and that it would not be unusual to feel the need for a major change.  Later, I amended my theory to include a clause that the change can be either a total divorce from your current situation or a radical restructuring of your existing life.  This theory fits me to a tee.

It’s funny.  I have never experienced the problem in my marriage, which has just completed its forty-eighth very happy year.  However, I have seen the itch very clearly in other parts of my life, especially in my career.  Of course, seven years on the nose is not magic, but it’s a good average of the amount of time it takes until some extreme action is needed.  There comes a point when evolutionary change isn’t enough.

In my case, I spent six years in the sixties drifting through four different jobs before realizing I needed to settle down and find something for the long haul.  Once at Kane, I was in the accounting department for seven years before getting myself transferred to manufacturing operations.  I was plant manager for eight years, but most of the final year I was committed to leaving and was looking for a place to land.

My next job lasted seven years almost to the day.  The first three were as plant manager leading the startup and establishing a culture of excellence at the new Indiana plant.  In the final four, I was COO driving the turnaround of both the Massachusetts plant and the other functions there.

Although I was at United Way for seventeen years, I was presented with periodic opportunities that enabled me reinvent myself.  I started as president in 1995.  In 2001, we received the donation of the campus and buildings that became the United Way Center and, eventually, the Doug Otto Center, a co-location of about fifty human service agencies and programs at one site.

In 2008, our county was hit by a destructive 500-year flood for which I took on the task as director of the long term recovery while continuing my United Way duties.  I had managed to property as one of my United Way duties, but when I retired as president in 2012, we spun off the management of the buildings as a separate job and I stayed to do that job on a part time basis.

It’s been a fulfilling and gratifying career that has been broken into unofficial but clearly visible seven year segments.  Travel in your mind back through your own career.  Do you find a similar pattern?


AN OMINOUS BEGINNING TO A NEW ASSIGNMENT (Step 3 in My Career as a Crisis Manager)

After becoming plant manager and leading the turnaround of an all-but-dead gear manufacturing plant at home in Indiana, I was hired to manage a startup of a plastics plant in the same area. The results were outstanding (a blog for another time), and after a year I was asked to go to the company’s home plant and headquarters in Western Massachusetts.  That plant was losing money faster than w the Indiana plant could make it, and the company was struggling with the bank, customers, and suppliers.  My job was simply to fix it.

I had flown in the night before I was to start and arrived at the plant at 6:30 Monday morning.  The time was chosen deliberately to coincide with the start of first-shift.  At that time, the only door that was open was the factory entrance.  I wore jeans and a sweatshirt, which would become my regular attire on days that I didn’t meet with customers or bankers.

It had been announced that a hired gun from the Midwest was coming, but no one in the factory knew me.  Several were quick to notice that there was a stranger in their midst, but they had never seen a management person in that early.  Within five minutes, one of the Lubinsky brothers, Wojtek, approached me and asked if I was Doug Otto.  Wojtek and his brother Wladimir were rotocast machine operators.  Both were about 6-5 and 280.  They threw those big cases around as if they were softballs.  It turned out they were proud basketball season ticket holders at the nearby University of Massachusetts.  They wanted to take me to a Atlantic-Ten Conference basketball game against West Virginia on Thursday evening. Since I had grown up a Mountaineer, I had a particular interest in seeing this game.   West Virginia was a perpetual power and UMass fans were excited in the midst of the John Calipari era.  I told them that I would be honored.  I didn’t know if they wanted to make the new guy welcome or if they were just suck-ups, but I took the offer at face value.  Eventually, I found the former to be true.

The Lubinskys, who were both within a year or two of 40, were the first members of their family born in America.  They were life-long farmers, who still lived with their widowed mother.  They raised farmed their several-hundred acre family property.  They didn’t need the income they earned at the plant, but they worked for the benefits.

I asked them to point me to the maintenance supervisor, Tom Archer.  After tracking him down, we proceeded to set up my office in what had once been a store room in the center of the factory.  I wanted to be near the action and wanted no part of the executive area of the office building across the courtyard.

In the ensuing four days, I got around to meet everyone on all three shifts, observed processes in both the factory and offices, and held a few information gathering meetings.   Then it came time for me to accompany the Lubinskys to the basketball game.  It was an early game, so we planned to go to dinner afterwards.  Their season tickets were four seats in the front row of the small gym, across from the teams’ benches.  The gym, affectionately called “the cage” seated about 3800 which had been adequate until UMass began to experience remarkable success.  Now it packed for every game while a new arena was being constructed to open the next year.  I don’t know how big the Lubinsky’s check to the university athletic program was, but it had to be significant.  Our fourth was Carl Udo, the purchasing manager.  These seats were so close to the action that I felt as if someone might pass me the ball to drive in for a layup.

It was an exciting game, and at half-time the score was tied.  The action had been pretty rough, and the Lubinskys had not been shy about letting their feelings about the other team and the officiating be known in their bullhorn level voices.  Early in the second half, Wojtek was particularly offended by a call against the home team and was extremely vociferous in his protest.  The referee was Tim Higgins, who you can still see on ESPN officiating games six or seven nights a week during the season.  Higgins rushed toward us to the edge of the court.  That put him about eight feet from us.  He called a police officer over and would not let the game resume until we were gone.  The cops realized that Carl and I were innocent parties to the crime and allowed us to stay.  I think they had caught the Lubinsky boys’ act at previous games, but they had never been called upon to administer the equivalent of a fan’s death penalty.  When last seen, Wojtek was in handcuffs and Wladimir, who was not cuffed, was giving the finger to the television camera that was following the incident to its conclusion.  In today’s world, that would surely have been Sports Center Top-10 highlight as well as a You Tube favorite.  Fortunately, Carl had driven separately and was able to take me back to the hotel.  I never did get any dinner that evening.

When I arrived at work at 6:30 the next morning, Tom Archer was waiting for me at the factory entrance.  He was laughing his ass off.  “Have the Lubinskys offered to take you to all the games on their season tickets?”  It seemed that everyone in the shop had either seen the incident on television or heard about it.  The camera had taken the opportunity of the timeout to follow the procession to its end.  It gave me a great story to share with my friends over a beer when I got home.  I think my finding humor in that bizarre incident without seeking retribution helped with my acceptance by the work force.  You need to grasp those moments that help you to be accepted whenever they come up.

This anecdote was used as the basis for a section of my book, Machete Moments–A Turnaround Manager: Burned Out at 54 and Turned On for the Next 18 Years.  The book is available at





The following is an edited excerpt from my book, Machete Moments: A Turnaround Manager–Burned out at 54 and Turned On for the Next 18 Years.  The book is a fictionalized account of my 34-year career as a turnaround and crisis manager in both manufacturing and nonprofit organizations. This tells of my first venture into such a situation.  The names of people, places, and organizations have been changed to protect the privacy of those who have been a part of my life, but the incidents are true. 

I had been at the plant I was to manage for eight years, including the seven spent in accounting. The plant had just come off a violent 5-month strike. During the strike, one of my responsibilities as manufacturing manager was to lead a skeleton crew to be on the inside when we knew there was going to be violence on the picket line. Our group became known among the non-striking employees as Joe’s G. I.’s. There were those among us who had a good enough relationship with a few of the less militant strikers that we were warned when those times were coming. At least, we could answer urgent calls from customers, protect the computer, document the picket line activities on video tape, and communicate with the police. On days when the picket line was less threatening, salaried and non-exempt employees were invited to come in and work in the factory to produce emergency orders.

As the strike grew longer, the inside crew had been shot at, replacement workers had been followed to their homes and beaten, and cars of non-union employees trying to get onto the property had been rolled over with the drivers inside. When the strike was over, everyone on both sides of labor and management was angry.

Joe’s G. I.’s spent much of our time in the front lobby of the office area. This was our war room. Here was where we made videotapes of the picket line activities. One of my most vivid memories occurred when the strike was about three months old. The front wall of the lobby was made up of three large glass windows from floor to ceiling. The G. I.’s were eating dinner one night shortly after dark. One of the more enthusiastic strikers climbed the chain link fence surrounding the property, performed a low crawl across fifty yards of lawn, and bashed out one of the windows out with a baseball bat. Glass flew through the lobby like shrapnel from a land mine. Two of our guys were cut—one needing emergency room treatment.

One of the concessions in the settlement was that the company would drop the charges against fourteen union members who had been arrested for violence during the strike. In addition, they would be reinstated as employees, and no disciplinary action would be imposed. I was furious at the decision by top management and didn’t much care who knew it. I and others had literally risked our lives to save the plant, and we felt betrayed with what we saw as a management cave-in. That was when I got my first lesson in the concept of the greater good. I got a call from the Kane CEO in Philadelphia. He told me that he understood my feelings and that he was personally very appreciative of what our team on site had done. He also let me know that if the strike had run two more weeks, top management had already decided that the plant would be closed. Even when the strike ended, the opinions of senior management had been split as to whether to close it or give it one more chance with a new guy as plant manager. The next day, I got word that I was promoted to that position.

I thought long and hard about “the greater good.” For decades, when left alone in the night with my thoughts, I have agonized over whether I had sold out in not only accepting management’s decision but also in gaining personally from it? Those of us who had been through the battles all wanted to see those fourteen men punished. They had committed criminal acts and had endangered our personal well-being and our jobs. However, had I sulked away, the plant probably would have been closed, and my job and 400 others would have been lost. The ripple effect would have been felt throughout the community because Vienna would have lost one of its largest employers. Vengeance can be a great motivator, but it rarely leads to productive decisions. Fortunately, I learned quickly to swallow that desire in favor of the greater good. Should I be ashamed of that rationalization? Late at night, I’m still not quite certain.

About two months into the new job, I was called to corporate headquarters in Philadelphia to meet with Kane’s executive vice-president/chief operating officer. He was a good old boy named Robert E Rutledge, who was so entrenched in southern living that he commuted every week from Savannah to Philadelphia. He proudly went by Robert E to all who knew him. Like Harry S Truman, E was his middle name. It was not an initial, and it stood for nothing.

I was ushered into Robert E’s huge office. It had all the trappings one might expect of the egomaniac he was reputed to be. It covered about 2,000 square feet and contained what I estimated to be upwards of $100,000 worth of furniture and carpet. There were shelves full of trophies. On the walls were framed diplomas, both earned and honorary, patents, and a half-dozen wild animal heads, which I suspected he had killed with his bare hands.

Robert E arrived after he was certain that I was seated so that I could get the full effect of the grandeur of his entrance. No handshake was offered. Instead, he slowly went to his desk chair, seated himself, and stared at me without blinking for what seemed like ten minutes. Actually, it was probably twenty seconds, but it was long enough to make me extremely uncomfortable as I tried to return his gaze without looking away. I was hopeful that if I could succeed in that effort, I might earn some modicum of respect.

Without ever calling me by name, Robert E, in his extreme southern drawl, opened with, “What are you gonna do about that fuckin’ mess out there in Indiana?” I started to answer that I was going to make some changes in the assembly line and shift some personnel. Robert E interrupted. “Yoou don’t understaand. Yoou’re tryin’ to op-err-ate with a scalpel, and I’m tellin’ you to use a Goddamn machete.” That was the end of the meeting. Again without a handshake, a good luck, a good bye, or a go to hell, Robert E left the room. After the shock had started to wear off, I went to the outer office and asked his secretary if she knew if the meeting was over. She answered matter-of-factly, “Oh yes. In fact, your meeting lasted longer than many of Robert E’s one-on-one meetings.”

To this day, I can’t stress strongly enough what a tremendous effect that meeting, especially Robert E’s machete metaphor, had on the rest of my career. In order to embrace his term as my mantra, I had to first give it a clear definition. What did it mean to me? I decided that a machete moment would be the successful implementation of an idea that those with less vision would see as too radical to consider—an action that I was convinced was the right path and would push forward in the face of opposition. I don’t mean that I would not listen to well thought out logical arguments, but the knee-jerk reactions of naysayers and the cowardice of fools would not destroy my resolve.

The rest of the book describes the success of our team in turning around this plant.  It goes on to recount turnarounds and startups in other manufacturing and nonprofit organizations and the leading of my community’s long term recovery from a 500-year flood and a $5million dollar fire.



The following  is an edited excerpt from my book, Machete Moments: A Turnaround Manager–Burned Out at 54 and Turned On for the Next 18 years.  The book is available at and

Can We Mine Deeper When It Comes to Contributing Ideas?

For years, I have pondered about the value of quantifying brainpower. As a result, I have developed a theory that you are welcome to use as your own where you work.  Admittedly, you can find many bases on which to criticize it.  It is far from scientific as it is based on fifty years of observation rather than hard data.  It’s a concept, not a formula.  And it is simplistic.  But that doesn’t necessarily mean it is bullshit.  I just ask you to read it with an open mind, and see if it is worthy of your consideration.

It’s an art for a leader to be able to encourage disagreement without spending an inordinate amount of time listening to whiners. I’m not saying that you should create a democracy in running a business. Consensus is overrated. It’s nice to reach it, but as the boss, the big decisions are yours to make. However, listening to, and even soliciting the opinions presented by others can be extremely valuable and should often be part of the process leading to a decision.

In that vein, I would like to expose you to the my Theory of Collective Brainpower.  We all know what an organization chart looks like. The boss is at the top, and there are levels of employees below her, each reporting to someone on the level above and always making less money than those at higher levels.  (Pro sports not withstanding.) Let’s pretend our company has four levels and that each level has three times as many people as the level immediately above. For purposes of this exercise, everyone at a given level possesses twice the Brainpower (BP) as those at the next level down. Our chart would look like this:


X                                (8 units BP; total 8 units)

         XXX                              (4 units BP each; total 12 units

XXX XXX XXX                       (2 units BP each; total 18 units)

XXX XXX XXX XXX XXX XXX XXX XXX XXX   (1 unit BP each; total 27 units)


In this example, there are 65 units of Brainpower in the company. The boss has only 12% of the total. He and his direct reports combined have only 31%. Not to find a way to take advantage of the Collective Brainpower of everyone in the organization is downright foolish.

If your ego won’t let you accept that you and your managers are only twice as smart as the people on the next level below, use the presumption that each level has four times the Brainpower of the next level down. (That makes the head guy sixteen times as smart as the workers on the factory floor or the case workers or the clerical staff—a premise I have a lot of trouble with.) Even then, the boss has only 13% of the total BP, and he and his lieutenants together have 41%. The truth is that it doesn’t matter what reasonable ratio you decide on among the top, the middle, and the bottom of the organization, the majority of the Brainpower is still down in the ranks. I can’t imagine how anyone would expect her employees to check their brains at the front door.

A bi-product of this approach is that the people in lesser positions feel more a part of the company. For an employee to feel valued leads to all kinds of positive results.


I am a firm believer in the concept of playing the hand I’m dealt. I have a friend with whom I play gin rummy on a regular basis. When I’m dealt a hand with no pairs and no successive card in a suit, I don’t punish the cards by throwing them across the room and giving up. I play the hand, make the best I can of it, and hope to get a better hand on the next deal.

Such is the case with many of the problems in our society.  We should work tirelessly to establish conditions whereby we minimize the chance of bad things happening.  My list of bad things includes everything from murder and theft to drug and alcohol addiction, teen pregnancy, dropping out of school, wrecks caused by reckless driving, and smoking.  I’m sure you could make your own list that might be as long as your arm.

The first step in prevention of all bad things is developing our children from birth by their parents and, if applicable in child care.  This is the time we can instill values that will stay with them for life.  On the timeline of life, the next step happens in the school system.  If we could get all parents to understand the importance of that development and model the behavior and values that tend to lead to success, we would have an unbelievable number of fewer bad things happening.  And the amazing fact is that this plan can be implemented by anyone regardless of wealth, IQ,  race, or occupation.

Now let’s jump to the negatives in my dream.

  • Not all parents will buy into this.  Some won’t bother to understand, and others just don’t care.
  • Not all young people will live to the behavior and values they have been taught.  Often this happens as a result of peer pressure.
  • A small percentage of young people will not have the mental capacity to learn and be self-sufficient.
  • Bad breaks such as health problems or debilitating  accidents can occur.

All of this constitutes the hand we’re dealt.  At this point, let’s accept that we will have done all we reasonably could as a society to create the best possible environment, but we still have a relatively small pool of unfortunate circumstances.  Despite our best effort, some people will still abuse drugs and drive recklessly, some teens will get pregnant, and all of the items on your list and mine will happen to a lesser degree than today.

Now let’s look at how we deal with a large portion of those thing that go wrong.  The United States has 5% of the world’s population but 25% of the people in prison.  We not only have the greatest percentage of our population in prison we have the greatest absolute number.  And the average length of confinement is far greater that that of any other country.  I’m not going to drag out a plethora of statistics for this article.  Here are a few of the more alarming ones. (I researched various sources and recent years.  There is some slight inconsistency among those numbers, but there hasn’t been much change in the past five years, and the numbers are very close.  I assure you my list represents the nature and degree of the facts.)

  •  7.5 of every thousand people in America is in prison or jail.
  • If we look only at working age men that number jumps to 21 per thousand.  I have chosen not to recognize statistics by ethnicity because that implies that race is the primary factor when, in fact, there are many other contributors such as education and poverty.
  • Get this one tax watchdogs: The annual cost of operating US prisons is about $70 billion or about $28,000 per inmate.  That’s the equivalent of every household in America contributing an average of $600 to run our prisons for a year.  Since we have put oversight of prisons in the hands of for-profit corporations, they have successfully lobbied for lower thresholds and longer sentences.  Of course they have.
  • The most conservative (lowest) estimate I could find says that 30%  of the 2.5 million people incarcerated in America have been convicted of so-called victimless crimes.  While not exactly synonymous, I prefer the term non-violent crimes because while there are not direct victims there is a fallout to indirect ones such as families and employers.  To clarify my point, here is a very small list of examples: possession, purchase, or sale of drugs, prostitution, gambling, drunkenness, embezzlement, immigration offenses, and my personal favorite necrophilia.

I’m not proposing that these offenders not be punished, but imprisonment is totally non-productive and very expensive.  Here are a few alternatives: house imprisonment except for going to work or school, public service, stiff fines, and restitution.  This allows the convicted party to contribute to the community, remain an active parent, and have an opportunity to reform.  There is no evidence that imprisonment yields any of those results.  Predictably the cost savings to the American people would be about $25 billion a year.

Using our usual short-sightedness, we perpetuate the same types of punishments we used when our nation was founded.  We arrest and imprison or kill the perpetrators without regard to the cost or whether that procedure is productive or the cost.

US attorney general Eric Holder is committed to prison reform.  As he puts it, “We need to ensure that incarceration is used to punish, deter and rehabilitate – not merely to convict, warehouse and forget.”

We have to wake up and see to it that imprisonment will be a last resort.  Punishments need to be administered consistently regardless of the wealth or social status of the perpetrator–not fat cats buying their way out.