He was like a brother to me

While driving in my rented Nissan Sentra in San Anselmo, California on June 27, the theme to “My Three Sons” came on the news. At first I was delighted to hear it, until the announcer shared the reason for it: Don Grady, the actor who played “Robbie Douglas” on “My Three Sons,” was dead from cancer. To my surprise, I started crying, and had to pull the car over and compose myself.

If you don’t know the name, you’re probably not someone who grew up in the 60’s. Don Grady was an actor and musician who was best known for “My Three Sons.” Robbie Douglas had two brothers, Mike and Chip, and when Mike was written out when the actor Tim Considine left the show, Robbie became the older brother, and neighbor Ernie was adopted by Steve Douglas, the widowed father of the boys.

This death hit me hard, for this reason: Don has been my friend on Facebook for the past year. Don’s TV brothers, Stanley and Barry Livingston (Chip and Ernie, respectively) are also my Facebook friends. Unlike Don, I had actually met the Livingston brothers some years ago when a mutual friend brought me to a house party at Barry’s home in Hollywood. Oddly, being able to say I had all three My Three Sons as Facebook friends was even more thrilling than being able to say that I had met two of them.

Don was a Facebook friend in the best possible way. He completely engaged with people, whether they were his personal friends or fans, even if those fans had no conception of him outside of “Robbie Douglas.” He made personal comments, answered mail, and was thankful for all the love that came his way. When he talked about missing his father, I asked him what lessons his father taught him. “Great question, Andrew!” He went on to talk about those lessons, and it was clear he relished his family. Don was a musician, and was happy to talk about his music, and generously offered free downloads of several of his songs. He was a very good musician, in fact, and I let him know it. He was self-deprecating about his music, and I reassured him that as a fellow musician, I know what I’m talking about when I hear talent. He was thankful for my comments. This engaging, combined with the fact that I grew up watching the three TV brothers (and for years in reruns), I felt like I had lost a brother.

As it turns out, most of the world had no idea Don was even sick. He never talked about his illness. When people would congratulate him on his youthful good looks in his most recent pictures from 2009, he would be thankful and credit clean living and a good family life. I knew for some time that in fact, he was quite ill, through my friend who was close to Stanley Livingston. It says a lot about his grace and strength that he never turned his illness into a pity pot, and as long as he could, maintained his connection to the many people who didn’t know him, but felt he was like a brother.

Barney Fife, Postal Inspector

I live in a building in Washington Heights near the top of Manhattan that is over 100 years old. I personally have lived in this building at the corner of 168th Street and Broadway, which contains a mix of residential and commercial tenants, mainly offices of Columbia-Presbyterian Hospital, since 1985. My next-door neighbors have lived in the building since World War II. The building number is 601, and has been 601 since the time the New York Highlanders baseball team played their games across the street before moving across the river and changing its name to the New York Yankees. This address is reflected on the fa├žade of the building, but more importantly, on the mailing label of many thousands of pieces of mail and packages that come to the building, as well as appearing on official documents like my driver’s license and passport.

Despite all of this clear and convincing body of evidence, a recent visit by a postal inspector determined that the address is “actually” 603. Somehow, this has escaped the attention of the USPS and the entire Western world since 1908. It has not ever been a problem for anyone, but now that the postal “service” has become aware of it, it is a huge problem. The postal service announced via a flyer in our mailboxes that the address is incorrect and that all mail must now be addressed as 603 West 168th Street, failing which, all mail sent to 601 will be returned to the sender after a two-week “courtesy” period.

There apparently is no 601. It’s not as if said mail could possibly go anywhere else by mistake. There are only two possibilities: Barney Fife (a/k/a Don Knotts on “The Andy Griffith Show”) is the postal inspector, or the United States Postal Service itself has “gone postal.”

So let’s see if I have this straight. Thanks to Mr. Fife, literally tons of mail that will come to this building in the next six to twelve months will be returned by the Post Office to their respective senders. The cumulative cost of postal service man hours, driving of postal vehicles, delivery by air, gasoline to fuel the trucks and planes, not to mention the thousands of hours of people needlessly sending forms to vendors, service providers, friends and family, etc. and ad nauseum to have them “correct” the building address, is astounding. Since the USPS is effectively absorbing the cost of all such returned mail, this also means many thousands of dollars in lost postal revenue to a service that is so broke that it has threatened it could go out of business, and has asked Congress to let them off the hook for the deals it made with the postal union. With such a broken bureaucracy, it’s not surprising why.

Of course, the sensible solution to this non-problem is to fix the entry in whatever book or database or other official document has gotten our Barney Fife’s feathers so ruffled. After 101 years, Mr. Fife, my coaching to you: you might consider another line of work.

The coaching lesson here? The address change might even be technically correct, but always look at the cost of “being right” versus doing “what works.”

How Commerce Bank lost its niche… and its heart

There’s a lot of talk in the world of coaching about “finding your niche.” A niche is what lets a coach, or any business, set itself apart from the pack. Find your niche, and do it better than anyone else, and you’ll have more business than you know what to do with.

In banking, there was one bank that created a niche truly unique from all its competitors. They created a model based on creating not just good customer service, but the best. They found out what the customers not only wanted, but dreamed of. The result was a bank open seven days a week that offered such amenities as free coin counting, free checking, and no surprise fees. Walking through the door, you’d be greeted personally, and often offered a free piece of candy. Blue “Commerce” pens were plentiful and soon gained wide circulation among the cognoscenti of the 9-5 set in Manhattan. When you opened an account, even for a nominal amount consisting of just the change you brought in for counting, you’d get a personal, handwritten card from the person who opened your account. With these sort of practices, for a number of years, Commerce Bank was a shining example of what happens when a commercial entity has a strong mission and purpose and combines it with leadership in the art of customer service.

Somewhere in the last year or so, this once-great bank lost its bearing. Without warning, the bank instituted draconian “monthly cycle fees” that rivaled that of their biggest and worst competitors for fee gouging. Closing an account became a process of trickery and deception that would not allow a customer to leave without incurring months of miscellaneous fees that were never on the statement. Stories of branches “losing paperwork” that would then cause even more fees became common knowledge. The same type of petty, nickel-and-dime thinking that plagues much of the banking and credit card industry replaced the powerful vision of customer care that made this bank one of the fastest growing in the country. Perhaps it is the concerns of a steep recession, but clearly, this bank has lots its mission and purpose.

My mother had a great expression for this. “You’re being penny-wise and pound foolish.” (The “pound” gives away the origins of this expression as an old British one.) It means you’re more focused on the small picture, not the larger one. It’s like hiring an accountant for $150 to examine your $75 cell phone bill.

Let’s look at this from a coaching perspective. If you were coaching the CEO of Commerce Bank, where would you start? My first questions might be, “Has the vision and mission of the bank changed in the past five years? Are the benefits attained from these fee strategies worth the cost to the bank in customer loyalty, goodwill, and future business?

I invite your coaching questions or provide your own approach.

April 4, 2008