Friday, July 1, 2011

Embracing differences, Playing the game?, Charles Angoff

Ok, so this morning a random driver, arranged by the hotel, drove me to the airport. As I had adopted from Gerald Hines many years ago, I sat in the front passenger seat with the driver.  He was from Pakistan, about the same age as me and we had a lively conversation.  His name is Abdul.   We talked about a lot and found that we agreed on many things.  He used two good sayings and I thought I’d relate them to you.  One, in regard to the massive amount of debt that people in developed countries have taken on, he said (and maybe he didn’t originate these but I hadn’t heard them before):  “I don’t agree with the philosophy of ‘buy now, pay later.’  I believe many people have adopted the attitude of ‘buy now, pay in the next life.’  And the other one, in relation to the sub-prime mortgage situation (how about the news this week that Bank of America is setting aside $12Bn to pay fines!) he said, “When the ship is going down, I’m going to look out for myself.  For all I care, the captain can go down with his ship.” 

One of the wonderful things about leading a serendipitous life is experiencing random interactions of this type.  But, you also have to be open to them.  I’ve long believed that while I don’t believe that the world will ever experience ‘peace on earth’ (for reasons that I’d rather not discuss here) we can bring the world closer together, one person at a time, by taking time to engage people.  We can learn from each other and, like with Abdul this morning, we can appreciate that we are all members of the human race and value and respect our differences.

Most of my career has been spent working for entrepreneurial type companies.  A couple of times I have worked for larger firms like A&P supermarkets & Midlantic Bank.  But I have been a real estate consultant rather than an employee to more larger firms such as (you’ll excuse the reference to some long gone) Chase Manhattan Bank, Bankers’ Trust, Chemical Bank, Mass Mutual, John Hancock, Kohler Co., Merrill Lynch Smith Barney, The New York Urban Development Corporation.  I have also had the privilege of being, for lack of a better term, the ‘industry shrink’ to a number of real estate investment management firms, which, in some ways, would read like a who’s who of that industry.  And, as an independent trusted advisor I was brought into the inner workings of a company to provide consulting and coaching services (I forgot if I wrote this to you recently but a friend of mine educated me on the differences between coaching and consulting.  A consultant provides ideas and solutions; a coach asks questions…it’s up to you to find your own way.    When she told me that I simply shook my head in agreement.  I may be getting a little off the path here but that’s nothing new, right?  

When I worked for Herb Kohler in Kohler (next door to Sheboygan, Wisconsin) I was brought in to provide consulting services on one project but as time went on I was ‘dragged’ deeper and deeper into the company and sometimes the politics started taking a toll on my ability to perform my services.  On a number of occasions during my two year engagement I went downstairs in the Kohler Design Center to watch a multi-media presentation about the history and future of Kohler (the company and the town) and it helped me remember that a lot of what was being done there was working towards the realization of a visionary, Herb Kohler, and didn’t necessarily need to make economic sense.  And, on two occasions I went to visit the man himself.  After he asked me how things were going (I used to see him monthly in the real estate committee meetings as well) he asked me why I was there.  I told him that I was being dragged into departmental politics and it was both draining and distracting.  He simply told me, “Steve, one of the reasons I wanted you here was that you can keep yourself distant from those things; you aren’t an employee and you can operate on a different plane.  Don’t let them suck you in.”  I left those brief meetings both energized and with more reinforcement of my involvement and how I could help Herb, in some small ways, achieve his dream.  That was probably the deepest corporate political doo-doo that I’ve ever experienced.  But many large companies (large being relative) seem to suffer from the drain of bureaucracy, politics, insecurity, fear and jealousy.  And having been both a coach and consultant to firms in North America, Europe and to a small degree Asia I can validate the negative impact that those things have on a company, on the morale of the people and on the price of gaining desired results.  The amount of time wasted, the games played, the failure to stay focused on the mission but rather on keeping your job (or doing your darndest to help someone fail at theirs and watch them pack up their stuff in a box and walk out the door.)  As Bill Withers sang, “We all need someone we can lean on and baby you can lean on me.”  I have found that to be more and more true as time goes on and am grateful for the friends and colleagues I have that I can lean on from time.  

When I started college, at Fairleigh Dickinson University (FDU)in Rutherford, NJ, I was fortunate enough to be assigned to a freshman English class with a professor named Charles Angoff.  Our FDU campus was close to Manhattan and was able to attract teachers of a higher quality, who lived in NY, than you might expect from a relatively obscure (except in New Jersey) university.  Angoff was one of those special ones.  He was an accomplished author and editor.  I don’t know what got me thinking about him recently but I bought a book written by someone who knew him well:  The Man From The Mercury:  A Charles Angoff Memorial Reader.  Edited and with an Introduction by Thomas Yoseloff.  Among other stuff it contains one Angoff short story titled, “The Tone of the Twenties” (as in 1920’s).  There are a bunch of quotable and notable things but the one that struck me and that I want to share with you is this: “Times of vital leaping imagination are not times of unalloyed happiness.  No happiness is ever unalloyed.  The sense of fleeting time and the apparent purposelessness of the entire scheme of things surround all calm and all joy with an inaudible sigh.  This seems to be the divine plan.”

Heavy eh?

Congratulations to Richard Lowe, new editor of IPE Real Estate.
Congratulations also to Martin Hurst who has assumed the COO role at IPE.
Congratulations to Mike Stratta who has joined the Aviva Investors Real Estate Multi-Manager group.

To all Americans, enjoy the Independence Day weekend.  To everybody else, enjoy your weekend.

On the road….

July 1-7:  Northern California
July 10-12:  Beverly Hills to attend the NMS Real Estate Roundtable
July 14:  Bistro Jeanty,Yountville, CA to celebrate Bastille Day.  A friend of mine plays the accordion to add to the festivities.  Sounds like it'll be a fun time.
July 18-21:  New York

These are my views and not that of my employer.

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