Remember the good old days?


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It was a sultry July day in 2002 when I met Dan at an International Management Consultants breakfast in Burlington. We chatted and discovered we were both sailors. In fact, Dan had lived on a boat in Newport, R.I., while selling for a pharmaceuticals company. In addition, we both had worked for Digital Equipment. Although I didn't get a lot of advice on how to improve business, it was an enjoyable discussion.

A few days later, a client canceled a sailing meeting (much better discussions than in their offices), and I invited Dan. After we cleared our little harbor, I offered him the helm. The delight on his face could not have been better if I had offered him a winning million-dollar lottery ticket.

Although he obviously knew something about sailing, he wasn't demonstrating the sort of expertise I would have expected from someone who used to sail a 36-foot boat. We were sailing on Lake Massabesic, just outside Manchester. He was used to the ocean, where the winds are much steadier.

Having done a fair amount of ocean sailing myself, I could understand his unresponsiveness, although it was troubling.

Over the years, I took him sailing a number of times, but each time his performance at the helm got steadily worse, and I couldn't understand it. How could this happen?

Concurrently, he developed a stutter, which got steadily worse. He was trying to make his living in sales, and it was painful, even annoying and frustrating, to speak with him. And it got steadily worse. How could he possibly survive?

Then I got a call from him at the Veterans Home in Tilton. He had been diagnosed with a rare form of Alzheimer's. He was forgetting how to talk. In fact, his speech was so poor, so unintelligible, his nurse had to explain, as he could no longer verbalize his thoughts.

I was stunned. Here was a guy who had been so athletic, he would think nothing of diving into 20 feet of water without scuba equipment to pick up a lobster off the bottom for dinner, and he was losing his ability to do some of the most basic things, the things we perform automatically without even thinking.

I still visit Dan whenever I'm up north. I don't stay long, as he tries to tell me things I can't understand, and he gets more and more frustrated. It must be pure hell living in an environment where you can't express yourself.

Are you wondering what this could possibly have to do with improving performance?

Like Dan, I'm afraid many people and businesses have a form of Alzheimer's. We have forgotten how to be successful. We have forgotten what made us successful to begin with. We have become so fixated on reducing costs we have forgotten how to generate revenue.

Yes, the very things we used to do automatically, that were second nature, are disappearing in our quest for profit no matter what. In many cases, profit pictures would actually improve if we would only get back to basics.

I recently heard former colleagues telling each other stories about the good old days. Only one of them was still working, and he confirmed repeatedly that those basic, routine things were no longer done. "Believe me; I don't know why customers keep paying us," he said.

Maybe you should invite your retirees to dinner. Get them talking about the good old days. If you find them reminding you of things you really should be doing (but have stopped), don't waste any time implementing them. Yes, many business dynamics have changed, but the basics still apply.

What brought customers to you in the first place? Are you still doing those things, or have you replaced them with less valuable alternatives? It's a lousy economy, and maybe your customers have less money, or maybe they've decided your lower value products and services are no longer worth their precious dollars.

Unfortunately, there is no cure for Dan. But you and your organization are probably more fortunate. Your cure may consist of simply admitting you've lost your way and doing a little research to get back on track. Don't waste any time.

Ronald J. Bourque, a consultant and speaker from Windham who has had engagements throughout the United States, Europe and Asia, can be reached at 603-898-1871 or RonBourque@myfairpoint.net.

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