Extend Trust to Earn Trust

Posted on August 31, 2014 by Josh Linkner

The East L.A. neighborhood of Boyle Heights is a rough place. Plagued by violent crime and poverty, this rundown area has a history of gangs and prison sentences.

In fact, more than 65% of ex-cons in California are back in jail within three years. This recidivist behavior represents an enormous cost to society, both in terms of prosecution and imprisonment of the perpetrators, and also for the toll they take on their victims and the public safety of their communities.

The cycle is extremely difficult to break, beginning with few positive role models, poverty and lack of education. After inmates complete their sentence (and their debt to society), it is nearly impossible to get hired. Even when applying for jobs such as pizza delivery or garbage collection, employers can legally reject applicants with a felony conviction, and most job applications ask for that information.

With few career opportunities and no resources, the cycle continues when ex-cons return to breaking the law. Boyle Heights is hardly the place where you’d think to find a thriving business, especially one with a culture that helps reform its ex-con workers.

Father Gregory Boyle (his name is a only a coincidence; the neighborhood wasn’t named after him) set out to create radical change. He believed that people with a rough past deserved a second chance and could thrive in the right environment. Boyle realized that these hard-hit individuals needed jobs, not handouts — so he started a company to give them a shot. Homeboy Industries was launched in 1992 to employ those that most needed a break. It began as a bakery and has since grown to encompass a wide variety of offerings including apparel, salsa and cafes.

Father Gregory Boyle

The story is authentic, which has driven demand for its products and services. Today, the company has over $10 million in revenue and employs 400 people that may otherwise be back behind bars.

The culture built by this unconventional leader is surprising. Rather than checking workers’ pockets, he extends trust. He treats the team with dignity, compassion, and respect, which in turn is given right back to Boyle and the organization as a whole. A deep sense of pride permeates the team members, who will do whatever it takes to contribute to Homeboy’s overall success. As new people join the company, those with a longer tenure help assimilate new arrivals. By giving them a second chance, the company changes its employees’ perspectives about their own future, transforming from crime to contribution.

In your own organization, do you peek over your colleague’s shoulder with a watchful eye of doubt? Do you send the message to those around you that they can’t be trusted? If so, you’ll end up with a team that trusts no one in return. Trust is earned, not issued. To build a culture of trust — in your company, community, or family — start by extending trust to others. Show others they are trustworthy, and you’ll end up with plenty of people you can count on. No second-guessing required.

The Irony of The Imitator Epidemic

Posted on August 24, 2014 by Josh Linkner

Several original works by Picasso, van Gogh, Jackson Pollock and Renoir are worth more than $100 million each and continue to appreciate at a rapid pace. “The Card Players,” painted by Paul Cezanne, sold for $259 million in 2011, making it the highest amount paid for a painting in history. Collectors appreciate the artistry and groundbreaking original works from the masters.

The Card Players Paul Cezanne

If hundreds of millions is out of your price range, you can commission a stunningly accurate replica of the same work for around $2,500. The modern-day artist will replicate style, texture and paints, creating you an outstanding copy on canvas for 1/100,000th of the price. Still out of range? A poster of the work is available in nearly any size on eBay, starting at only $49.95.

Sir Paul McCartney amassed a $1.2-billion fortune by creating original works, and tickets to see him perform live command as much as $1,000 each today. Compare that to the local “cover band” that performs the same hits in high quality for 100 times less — only $10 cover charge with a two-drink minimum. The musicians in the cover band are very talented, practice hard and sound great. Their gig is the same amount of time (or longer) than McCartney’s concert, and they are undoubtedly accomplished.

Knowing that the world craves and pays handsomely for original thought and fresh ideas, why do so many of us spend our days mimicking the work of others? Rather than breaking ground with a bold new product, me-too offerings fill the marketplace. Instead of creating a unique new ad campaign, tired slogans blend together in a sea of sameness.

Copycat solutions abound. Salespeople attempt the same closing techniques as competitors. Website designs follow similar patterns, making them indistinguishable from others. Policies and procedures are enacted by saluting tradition, ultimately restricting freethinking rather than celebrating it. We have hit an imitator epidemic.

Original work takes creativity and courage, ingredients that each of us possess and can deploy if harnessed. Despite fear or perceived risk, creating imaginative solutions is the only way to break free from mediocrity and seize your full potential. You are here to create, not follow. To forge new paths, not to hide in the shadows of others.

Copying others and following the herd takes nearly the same amount of effort as bringing your own vision to life. No matter what your profession might be, embrace your role as an artist in that field. Your blank canvas awaits. Now go paint your masterpiece.

The Danger of Riding Slow

Posted on August 17, 2014 by Josh Linkner

Think back to childhood. Of all the fears and frustrations, learning to ride a bike had to be high on the list of scary endeavors.

You desperately wanted the end state — independence, transportation and the thrill of having your own wheels. This, of course, was offset by the fear of falling flat on your face, splitting your lip and getting teased by Rebecca Forman in the second grade (hypothetically, of course).

First-time riders’ first instinct is to ride super-slow. A slow crash would be less painful than a fast one, the logic goes. You’ll remember, however, what happens when you ride too slow: Balance becomes nearly impossible as you shake and shimmy before tipping over. It takes some speed and momentum to stabilize, to make progress on your journey.

The reality is counterintuitive: The slower you go, the more likely you’ll fall.

As business leaders, we face the same fear but too often fail to remember this important lesson. When working to build our companies, communities and careers, a tip-toe approach is a surefire path to failure. In our first-fighting competitive economy, speed wins.

Spending my days with entrepreneurs, I often see this play out in real time. Working hard to preserve cash and avoid mistakes, well-intentioned start-up leaders often fall into the trap of going too slowly. In reality, the most fleeting and scarce resource isn’t capital, but time.

As one company slowly limps along, relying on training wheels, others blow past them at the speed of sound. If a project costs less but takes three times as long, is it really a savings?

Think about the real-world decisions we make regularly. For example, should you hire one salesperson or three? Choosing one may feel safer, but you may actually be adding risk rather than mitigating it. If the one new salesperson has a bad month or takes a vacation, the company suffers, whereas three salespeople provide margin for error. If each salesperson can land six new clients per month, having only one instead of three means 144 customers per year will go to your competitor instead of you.

The same logic applies to our community: Big challenges require bold solutions. Timid approaches that waste too much time studying the problem instead of attacking with vigor end up fizzling instead of flying. If we truly want to reinvent our cities, families and communities, we don’t have the luxury of being sluggish.

After a couple scrapes and bruises, you eventually pedaled your bike assuredly and have been zooming ever since. Let’s do the same in our professional lives in order to seize the tour de force opportunity in front of us.

Ride on.


Set Your Internal GPS

Posted on August 10, 2014 by Josh Linkner

Before the turn of the century, drivers relied on old-fashioned paper maps (remember those?) to find their way to a desired destination.

Before reliable map technology existed, our ancestors simply headed in a direction and hoped for the best (think Lewis and Clark).

These days, we can be far more accurate. Many cars are fitted with a GPS navigation system to tell us exactly how to reach our destination, step by step.

The mobile devices in most of our pockets can guide us via Google Maps, Waze and Apple’s iPhone Navigation. Once we plug in a clear-cut end point, these systems instruct us on every turn, even course-correcting if we get off path.

If we enter a vague destination, however, these handy GPS systems’ value evaporates. The looser the end point, the worse the directions. If you got in your car and just started driving with no direction in mind, you’d most likely end up far from your desired location.

Yet, many of us do the same thing with our own careers, families, and communities. We cruise through life without defining desired outcomes or forging clear-cut routes to specific destinations.

In the same way a hapless driver easily gets lost, we do the same without locking in our goals and objectives. It’s easy to look back with regret at unfulfilled dreams, but very often the problem isn’t the lack of talent or resources but the lack of a specific path and target.

As you ponder the coming weeks and months, what specific destinations have you locked in on your own internal GPS? Are they conflicting or congruent? As you review your map, does it efficiently guide you from your starting point to the desired end point, or does it weave in and out, wasting time and causing road wear?

The great news for us all is we have incredibly powerful GPS systems inside us. However, they are not auto-guided and need you to enter specific destination coordinates. Once you do that, your route becomes clear and your target becomes attainable. Drive purposefully down that path, and you’ll arrive even faster than Google Maps could advise.

Opportunities Live In Unexpected Places

Posted on August 3, 2014 by Josh Linkner

As kids, we enjoyed hide-and-seek, scavenger hunts and searching for hidden treasures left behind on sandy beaches. That same sense of curiosity and exploration can lead to our biggest breakthroughs as adults. Opportunity rarely comes by and knocks you in the face. Instead, it requires us to peek around corners and seek it out, often in the least likely places.

Jessica Mindich is a Greenwich, Conn.-based entrepreneur in the jewelry business. People in this line of work are often “heads down,” working on the intricate details of their craft. Jessica, however, took the time to be “heads up.” She was open-minded to fresh ideas and new possibilities, which led to an explosive shift in her business.

With unbridled curiosity, she stumbled upon a program in Newark, N.J., that was focused on getting guns off the streets. Newark mayor Cory Booker had launched an effort that paid cash for firearms turned in to the city — no questions asked. The program was gaining traction and collecting thousands of firearms (and getting them off the streets), but it faced two big challenges: It lacked enough funding to continue in full force, and storing thousands of illegal firearms was becoming a real safety issue.

Jessica could have glanced past the article and gone back to work. After all, she wasn’t in the firearms business and didn’t live in the Newark area. But she saw an opportunity to help the community while driving her business. She scouted a new opportunity.

Jessica approached the mayor and offered to take the stockpile of firearms off his hands. Working with local authorities, the guns were sorted, cataloged and melted down — ready for reinvention. She then launched a new line of jewelry called Caliber, which was made from the metal of recycled weapons. The jewelry line offers pieces from $150-$5,000, each proudly displaying the original gun’s serial number and its origin: Newark. Demand is high, and gun violence is reduced with each sale. Also, 20% of every dollar goes immediately back to fund the buybacks for the Gun Amnesty program in Newark. She’s now working with community leaders to bring the program to Detroit.

Caliber Jewelry

In addition to driving real social impact, her business has grown dramatically from her creative insight. Even though she was enjoying strong momentum before the new line, she refused to become complacent and had the courage to try something different and unique.

Jessica was on the hunt for new opportunities, and her willingness to embrace fresh ideas led to her big breakthrough. That same groove will also lead to yours. Look at the world around you with childlike wonder, and you may just discover your own high-caliber opportunity for change, growth and success.

Has The Milk Gone Bad?

Posted on July 27, 2014 by Josh Linkner

Prominently displayed on the milk in my fridge is an expiration date. Looking around the kitchen, my chicken breasts, Doritos, tomatoes, and eggs also show a date of expiration. Even beer now has as “must be sold by” date of no return. This makes great sense for food and medication — a time whereby their freshness declines beyond the point of utility.

Makes me wonder why more things don’t also have expiration dates.

Time Expired

Corporate policies and procedures, for example, should probably be enacted for a period of time that’s shorter than forever. Well-intentioned processes are established in the context of many external factors and likely make sense when created. However, the world around us is changing at a rate like none other in history. A policy or process that made complete sense in the past may now be irrelevant. Solving a problem is rarely a point of infinite arrival but rather should be viewed as a fixed-length solution to meet the challenges of that day.

When we enact laws at the federal or state level, they are on the books indefinitely. To make a change literally requires an act of Congress. Accordingly, we have laws in our country that were created in a totally different era that may or may not remain appropriate and productive. Thankfully we’ve made many big changes over the years, but there are surely hundreds of laws, codes, and governmental policies that are long overdue for a makeover. There are still silly laws requiring cats to wear bells around their necks and regulations detailing where to tie your horse when arriving at the local saloon. In fact, it’s illegal to sell peanuts in Lee County, Ala., after sundown on Wednesdays. Thank goodness for public safety!

As we craft solutions in our own lives, it’s far more productive to include an expiration date. Recognize up front that the new concept’s shelf life is limited, just like the sour cream in your fridge. Practically speaking, have your new office dress code expire in 12 months. Have the new logistics flow policy on the shop floor terminate after two years. Give the person on your team an 18-month job assignment instead of an indefinite promotion. You can always choose to reaffirm your previous decision and extend the term, but forcing yourself to challenge previously held assumptions on a regular basis will keep your decisions relevant and impactful.

Assuming conclusions will continue to work forever is a dangerous trap. The person who carries an umbrella on a rainy day is wise, while the same person carrying the umbrella the next day in the sun because of routine is a fool. It’s our responsibility to regularly challenge conventional wisdom and avoid falling victim to blindly following the past.

Rigid, unchangeable, immovable constraints give me a headache. Luckily, the Advil in my medicine cabinet has yet to expire.


Sometimes You Just Gotta Feed The Pigeons

Posted on July 20, 2014 by Josh Linkner

While studying jazz guitar at the Berklee College of Music in Boston, I had the privilege to study with the legendary Mick Goodrick.

As a young and hungry musician, I was especially frustrated at one point after reaching a seemingly impossible plateau. Goodrick offered profound advice on how to overcome my deeply technical musical problem: Go feed the pigeons.

After a double take and a chuckle (to imply that I got the joke he was obviously making), he proceeded to profess his wisdom.

He explained that I was stuck on a specific issue and was attacking the problem in a single-minded, myopic way. I needed outside perspective, a fresh approach. I needed to explore new patterns that could not be found by simply staring at the intricacies of the task at hand.

Music, he explained, is an expression of life. Staff paper, cramped practice rooms and metronomes didn’t provide a muse for creative expressive.

He told me to get away from the technical and discover the wonder and magic of the world. To expand my world view and to explore ideas far outside my comfort zone. In fact, he refused to meet with me again for a month. He said I needed time to breathe.

Man, was he right.


The solution to my highly technical problem had nothing to do with technique. By looking at the problem from a completely different lens, I was able to discover an entirely fresh approach. When I returned to my next lesson, I was beaming with pride as I shared the news of my accomplishment. After a long, reflective pause and a deep breath, Goodrick looked at me with the steeliness of a monk and simply said: “Look, kid. Sometimes you just gotta feed the pigeons.”

Each of us gets stuck on a particular problem at one point or another. To unleash our best creative thinking, putting more energy into the same approach may not be the best strategy.

In the words of creativity expert Edward deBono, “You cannot look in a new direction by looking harder in the same direction.” To harness the power of our imagination, we must explore before solving.

From a practical standpoint, go read a magazine in a totally different field.

Watch a movie or documentary that you’d never ordinarily view. Go to a game of a sport you’ve never seen. Take an alternative route to work. Make it a point to meet people from a different walk of life. The time you spend away from the problem will actually enable you to solve it.

By breaking old patterns of thought, you’ll allow new ones to emerge. Tackle your challenges from a new vantage point, and you’ll likely pioneer a fresh solution. The next time you’re really stuck? Go feed the pigeons.

5 Leadership Lessons From The Beatles

Posted on July 13, 2014 by Josh Linkner

Inspiration comes from unlikely places.

For some, nature is a source of ideation. For others, family and friends can give a twist of insight into something unrelated to your actual discussion. For me, I constantly find nuggets of wisdom in music — sometimes in lyrics, sometimes in a pattern, and sometimes just in the way an artist or band goes about their day. Maybe it’s that I’m a jazz musician by training. Maybe it’s just that I’m in the car so often and listen to a lot of music.

Today’s spigot comes from one of the greatest bands of all time: the Beatles. They are one of the most revered bands to ever play music, and they forever changed the landscape of rock ’n’ roll. Not too shabby for four guys from Liverpool. So what can we learn from them about business?

The Beatles

Push the boundaries. John, Paul, George and Ringo completely shattered previous conventions. Their sound was different from anything that preceded them. This is important because they shifted the landscape as they came on the scene, but even more so, always reinvented their own sound. When they burst on the scene, their pop sound was upbeat and had an even tempo — songs like “Twist and Shout” had a generation of teeny-boppers screaming for more. As they continued to create music, they constantly evolved, moving on to a much more complex and innovative sound.

Show up fully. No matter what they were asked, the Beatles never half-assed it. Regardless, the foursome always delivered on the promise 100%. Do you do this with every client? How about every employee’s request for development and growth? Have you given your all in every media appearance? If not, you’re missing an opportunity for success — take a lesson from this group and get your game face on.

Surround yourself with great people. The Beatles were insanely talented, but their success wasn’t earned solo. They had a prolific record producer in George Martin, and they had the biggest media ambassador on earth in Ed Sullivan. While recognizing their own strengths, they also knew their own weaknesses. To solve for those, they leveraged the strength of others — and it paid off, in full. Are you surrounded by A players, or is your network full of B-listers?

Build and nurture a fan base. Screaming girls. Frenzied fans. There wasn’t anything like it in history. The Beatles realized they were always on stage, and they recognized the importance of this. As such, they were always effective in building their brand. Do you view yourself as always auditioning?” If not, you should be. Every time you come in contact with someone, they could be a customer, adviser, mentor or advocate for you. Are you nurturing that interaction? Does your product or service create a frenzy like the Beatles? How could you improve it to get it to that point of WOW?

Keep it simple. Above all else, they used their creativity to make music that was accessible. Their instrumental gifts could have produced far more complicated songs with more technical riffs, but instead, they knew their music was for the masses — and as such, they created their music for that audience. They communicated with crystal clarity. And in turn, people the world over loved their music. In 10 seconds, could you tell me what your company does? Would I understand it right away? If not, start over.

The Fab Four certainly “whispered words of wisdom” far beyond their music. Embrace their leadership approach to boost your own magical mystery tour.

Where The Honesty Happens Matters

Posted on July 6, 2014 by Josh Linkner

A sealed bottle of water will break even the strongest containers when placed in a freezer and allowed to expand. The extra pressure created just has to come out, one way or another.

The same is true for honest feedback, critique and assessment. The real question in your organization is … where does it come out?

In the knowledge age, corporate battles are won through creative thinking and fresh human innovation, not by bending steel or cutting costs. Accordingly, business cultures that support, nurture, and harness their team’s best creative ideas are the winners of photo-finish victories. Creative ideas are rarely born as fully developed and fully defensible. Rather, they are nascent sparks that must be refined and shaped to bring their full power to life. Unfortunately, many organizations neuter their best ideas because politics impede honest feedback that could help jettison mediocre concepts.

A good barometer to gauge the potency of your creative culture is to observe where the honesty happens. In many hierarchical structures, sycophants quickly nod their heads to the boss’s idea, holding their own opinions back instead of challenging and elevating the ideation process. Like the frozen water, the honesty must come out somewhere, so it ends up spewing out as finger-pointing criticism among colleagues at the water cooler or the nearby lunch joint.

If the organization has reached a Defcon 5 level of dysfunction, honesty among colleagues becomes too risky and the distance for its release expands outside company walls to neighborhoods, sharing concerns with friends and family. If authentic relationships are void at that level, honest feedback gets released to therapists, strangers at the bar or as anonymous blog posts.

The key point is that the further the honesty is removed from the source, the worse it is for everyone. The bitch-and-moan club produces no tangible results, and isn’t even fulfilling for its participants.

As leaders in our organizations and communities, we must work hard to structure cultures and relationships that revere honest feedback rather than punish it. If thoughtful and candid feedback happens in real time at the point of ignition, creativity and results both soar. Unproductive gossip helps no one. Let’s insist on sharing candid and direct viewpoints in order to drive progress. Proximity matters. After all, wouldn’t you want someone to point out you have spinach in your teeth instead of laughing about it later behind your back?

Fight to move the honesty close to the source and you’ll enjoy a significant boost in performance. Honest.

What We Can All Learn From A Janitor

Posted on June 29, 2014 by Josh Linkner

Gac Filipaj, a refugee from the former Yugoslavia, arrived in America not knowing a word of English.

He came here with nothing but a dream and an unwavering commitment to realizing it. He landed a job as a janitor at Columbia University, doing the most unpleasant tasks such as emptying trash and cleaning toilets. Rather than feeling victimized or hopeless, he viewed this work as a platform for growth.

Filipaj ended work each night at 11 p.m., which is when his schoolwork began. While others were watching late-night television, Filipaj was routinely engaged in all-night study sessions. This determined soul worked hard and sacrificed. He fought through the setbacks and had the persistence to continue even when it was uncomfortable.

Twelve years after his journey began, at age 52, Filipaj graduated with honors from Columbia University. As others with privilege complained about their meal plan at the dorms or a bad night at a fraternity party, Filipaj relentlessly forged ahead, pursuing his vision with reckless abandon. And he has no intention of slowing down now.

Gac Filipaj

“I would say that I have fulfilled half of my dream — going to graduate school would complete it,” he said.

Throughout my career, I’ve been constantly told all the things I lack. I live in Detroit instead of Silicon Valley or New York. I didn’t go to Stanford or Harvard. I don’t have a degree in computer science. Starting out as a jazz musician, I didn’t have the right connections.

All these observations are correct. Yet what the detractors discounted the most was pure old-fashioned grit. Lucky for us all, grit doesn’t come from social class or some exclusive country club. In fact, grit is the great equalizer. It’s what allows ordinary people to do extraordinary things.

A vision for positive change combined with commitment, persistence and resiliency has been the winning formula for nearly all human progress. We all crave for a better world. Let’s use Filipaj’s example of grit and determination as a springboard for change.

The possibilities are limitless if we’re willing to do whatever it takes to seize them.