Glass 4/5 Full: Life, Business and the Narcissism of Small Things

Last December I hit 62 years old. Being honest with myself (and since I’m writing this “out loud” – you), I have to say I wasn’t thrilled by that because it’s a physical age where your mortality continues to slap you in the face.  My  seminal “recognition year” was when I hit 60 in 2009, where for the first time, I realized that I wasn’t immortal – even if 60 is the new 50. That might sound ridiculous, of course we’re not immortal, but I assure you, its not. Intellectually I had always realized that. But, on my 60th birthday it HIT me. It NAILED me.  On my 61st birthday, which was 2010 the year my last parent, my mom, died, I realized that for the first time in my life I didn’t have a parent to wish me happy birthday. I cried.

Now that I’m 62, all this feeling of mortality doesn’t depress me or make me sad. I won’t say it doesn’t concern me, because then I’d be lying. But much more than concern me, it makes me consider how I conduct my life and myself. How I live and what I have to do while I’m here. Thing is, that course of conduct impacts all facets of my life personal and business – since it’s a single life and I’m just one person – meaning I don’t have two codes of ethics, two bodies of principle, and two different personas depending on where I am.

I’m not going to delve deeply into all of what I’m thinking about but I will talk about one part of it – what I’m thinking about my place in CRM and some of the things that go on in the industry and about those who are participating in the industry.

I don’t try to kid myself.  I know that I occupy rarified air in the “big fish in a small pond” world of CRM. I realize that I am among its most recognizable names and I’m not too humble to say that I appreciate that even if I don’t think it’s really merited.  But at the same time as I once wrote and have often said, if my epitaph reads “he was #1 in CRM” that’s pretty pathetic. I need to do more and be more.

So let me start from here to let you know what I’m thinking. If this is too much, please tune out now and go elsewhere. If it’s okay with you, soldier on.

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Setting the Stage

When I was maybe 7 years old, my Dad was talking to me in the living room of our home in East Meadow, in New York and he said to me (this is an adult paraphrased version of what he told a 7 year old),

“Paul, your mother and I brought you into this world, but you don’t owe us anything. But because you’re in this world, you owe it something.”

I’ve tried to live my entire life based on that. I have a really strong belief in justice and doing Good (with a deliberate capital G). I write with that in mind, I work with that in mind and I take risks with my career and life with that in mind. I think that in order for me to be genuinely happy I have to do things that are good for others. That’s what makes them good for me.

Look, you’ve heard me say this before – in person and on stage. I don’t like business. Never did. Never will. I don’t live for it. I don’t find it immersive – even though I work very hard. In fact, I have only two “business” principles.

  1. Do well enough to make enough to support my family
  2. Have my friend’s backs always.

My business credo doesn’t extend much beyond these principles.

But it does extend to my business – obviously – which is CRM.

As far as CRM goes, I think I’m a lucky person to be in this constantly growing industry. It’s the only industry that I’ve come across so far that has a genuine community. This community has its subsets and segments and some subsets have little knowledge of other subsets. But the social glue that defines communities is there in CRM among influencers, vendors, and practitioners. I’ve  been in the ERP world and never seen anything close to this.  There seems to be some elements of familiarity in vertical industries, though not community that I can tell. More than any other place, in CRM, there is a group of people bonded together by common practice who are consistently interacting at some level with each other. I’ve seen a similar thing in the social enterprise world too.  AND with the rise of the social channels and the technology around it, these two communities – the people who are engaged in the social thinkers and doers community and the “traditional” CRM thinkers and doers – have intersected as of 2012 so they appear at the same (and each other’s) events, hang out in the same watering holes, and blab on the same channels via the social web (e.g. Facebook, Twitter, Skype, LinkedIn, Google Plus, and more exotic networks like Pinterest).

But, like any communities throughout the history of mankind, there are the downsides to those continuous interactions. Petty jealousies, fights for positioning that are both ugly and ridiculous and a significant amount of purely negative ripping of others that gets either too personal or so general as to be useless appears. Harpy Behavior.  Intense nitpicking over minor little details to “differentiate” the nitpicker from the one being nitpicked. A harsh battle by the nitpicker on the little detail with an overwrought insistence that they are right. This is something Freud called “the narcissism of small things.”

All of these things can reach a crescendo sometimes that is staggering in its noise, even more staggering in its doggedness and persistence and even more staggering in the useless results it gets.

So where is this going? Why am I bringing this up?

Negating the Negation (Metaphorically of course)

Why? Because I’m sick of hearing these negative things over and over from a few people who spend most of their time being negative about an industry that actually has done some good.  And, now that its worked out a lot of earlier kinks, provides some real return to the businesses that invest in it. So I want to address the different complaints, myths, and issues that have come up one by one and hopefully put them to rest because all they do is either perpetuate the myths or dishonor other human beings and neither of those things is all that helpful, now is it?

How to begin…….. Okay. People have to earn my distrust. You heard it right. People have to earn my distrust. That means, to put it simply, that if you are a human being that I’m meeting or know, I’m going to start by trusting you because I think that human beings are born good and that they stay good until some of them choose to become, let’s say, less than good. That means that if I truly believe that then I ‘m going to trust that goodness in you from the moment I meet you.

Naïve you say? Too simple. Yeah, well, I think I’m doing pretty well with that principle so far. My life has been on the whole a happy one with great parents who I miss every day, a wonderful wife of 30+ years, a fantastic slightly younger brother who I’ve loved from the moment he was born and a large group of genuinely good friends, some of whom are like family. I’ve had a rewarding career with the good will of the CRM industry behind it. This all allows me to be, I think,  a straight shooter. I have no qualms saying what I have to say privately or publicly, even at the risk of contract or career. Tough love is something that I practice but I never preach malice.

Never malice.

And that’s precisely what bothers me.

Problem #1: With Malice Toward All

I read blog posts, backchannel conversations, hear discussions every day that are literally entirely negative. They are spent not just tearing down the work that others do but also maligning their character. Typically, these discussions don’t support any positive solution. They just talk about how bad something someone is saying and that gets translated into insults to the person. Entire categories of people and companies – e.g. analysts, consultants, existing thought leaders, software vendors – are attacked, simply because they are analysts, consultants, existing thought leaders, software vendors.. All analysts are full of shit. All software vendors are malignant tumors, all existing thought leaders have nothing to offer. Sometimes it goes deeper. All institutional analysts suck is one I’ve heard over and over.

How does that work? These categories are descriptors, not individuals. There are good and bad in each of those areas. All analysts or institutional analysts don’t suck. They aren’t inherently bad as a category. There are some who are outstanding, some who are good and some who do suck. There are some who are outstanding that I don’t always agree with but, know what, they are as right as I am or maybe more so.

Problem #2: With Malice Toward One

I would venture to say it’s a good thing to have a career that you’re happy with and proud of. I would also say that one way to be proud of your career is that you’ve advanced it by presenting ideas, controversial and even possibly a little contentious, that bore out or made sense or allowed people to understand something more completely or better. Meaning, one way or the other, what you said made a difference.

But what I don’t get is why some think that the way to go about this is to denigrate other ideas in a personal way that ultimately makes the attacker look like a fool and a sad, insecure human being – in a public or semi-private forum. From a personal standpoint, I’ve seen attacks on me – not just what I say, but attacks that are personal – from people who have never spoken to me or even corresponded in 140 total characters with me. I don’t personally care all that much. I have pretty thick skin. But I’ve also seen attacks on younger industry people and on named individuals in both a public and semi-private setting that are literally bordering on cruelty. The form that it takes is an attack on something that person said or did and then an attack on their character from someone who has no relationship to that person.

Sadly, while this is by no means widespread enough to be epidemic, its happened enough that I’m regularly made aware of it. I think it needs to be addressed – which means its happening too much and is not an isolated thing.

No one I know has a problem with disagreement. But the personal attacks are uncalled for and actually undercut whatever legitimate argument the attacker has when it comes to the ideas that they disagree with. Always remember one thing. Discussion and disagreement on a concept can be healthy, if its for the right reasons, but a personal scurrilous attack is NEVER for the right reasons.

Myth #1: Consultants Don’t Do Work, Only Practitioners Do

I remember a few years ago, I read a tweet (I think) from a well meaning person from a vendor who was at a panel that included three SCRM thought leaders and a practitioner that who had reached the status of a thought leader. This tweet said, in effect, “its great to hear from the thought leaders, but I can’t wait to hear from (practitioner thought leader) who is really in the trenches.”

This is another  absurd discussion that I see time and time again which goes analysts and consultants aren’t doing  real work and that we need to hear from those who are in the trenches “doing the actual work”, and “getting their hands dirty.” That is arguably the stupidest of all the stupid constantly repeated mantras that I hear. What do those saying this think consultants do? Pontificate all day? (yes? you think that? Shame on you. Read Problem #1) Consultants are hired to work in the trenches with those in the trenches to help them figure out how to do the work to dig the trenches – and most of them take up the shovels to do that. I’ve done that work. Its hard and its political. You get into the companies that have hired you to help them figure out what the company needs and how far they can go to fulfill what they need. Keep in mind what I said, the people at the companies “doing the real work” HIRED THE CONSULTANT to help and the consultant then WORKS. There is no basis to say that they have less to say than those “who are really doing it.” Those who are really doing it are the ones who hired the consultants to begin with.

Myth #2: Only Customers Have Anything To Say. They are Gods. Vendors Bite

Okay, we move on to the next broad senseless categorization. Software vendors are lepers with money. The way that manifests itself the most obviously is at conferences that the software vendor is pushed to sponsor. The general tone that the events planners are putting forth is “we want your money, but we don’t want you to say anything. The only way you can say anything is via your customers.”

Or another manifestation came earlier this year, when I saw a criticism of CRM Idol, which said in effect, “you know, its too bad. This was a missed opportunity because it could have given the award to customers who are the real CRM idols.”

No, it couldn’t. The award wasn’t for customers. It was for small technology companies who were struggling to get visibility in an industry dominated by larger companies and a very high number of other small companies who were crowding the field. Making that statement was akin to saying “You know American Idol is was a missed opportunity. Rather than give the award to a singer, they could have given the award to a true American patriot, who is the real American Idol.”

The logic being used about vendors and customers is about as flawed as it possibly could be. More dangerously, and not unique to this one misstatement, there is an underlying assumption about vendors and “customers” that is just outright wrong. It presumes that only customers are good  and vendors are not. It idealizes customers and demonizes vendors.

Reality is very different.  A software vendor as a supplier is doing the same thing that the companies they supply are doing. They are selling stuff to someone. They are also someone’s customers. Those they sell to are also someone’s suppliers. As a class of businesses, there is nothing inherently different about a software vendor’s business concepts, behavior, or purpose than their customers’ business concepts, behaviors, and purpose. They are all suppliers and they are all customers. They are selling stuff to others.

That leads me to a conclusion that I think needs to be stated outright. Vendors are not evil by nature and actually have a lot to offer. I know that you’ll go, “okay, I can live with that, I guess.” But here’s the corollary. Customers are not perfect by nature and have as much to offer as vendors – not more – as much.  Oh, gasp. How shocking. The real way to approach vendors and customers?  Both of them and each of them needs to be reviewed on their individual merits without presumptions based on their category.

So let me put it into a few slogans.
End the idealization of customers and the demonization of vendors.

End the cult of the practitioner and degradation of the vendors.

Treat each company, regardless of whether they are a vendor or practitioner as it should be treated – an individual institution with things worthy of praise and things worthy of possible condemnation.

Let’s level this playing field and stop the crap already.

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When I hit 60, 61 and now 62, I realized that I have one life and that I am going to carry out what my parents taught about owing the world something in a redoubled way while sticking to my “business” principles. That means trying to live a just life.

Let me be clear. I can’t stop anyone from doing what they do. These sad people will probably continue to maliciously attack others and to propagate self-aggrandizing myths about entire categories of people and institutions. I can only make sure that I don’t deal with them or support them in any way. Again, I have my friends backs.

Those who I think are unjust – meaning demeaning the dignity and goodness of other human beings -aren’t my friends.

Period.

Let me also be clear. This isn’t a “why can’t we all get along” discussion. That’s absurdly unrealistic. There is always going to be some element of acrimony in a world that doesn’t have perfect people. But as one of my all time favorite philosophical champions, Philo Judaeus, once said, “every man is a miniature heaven.” Thus, I think that human beings are self-perfecting and thus they can learn.

In the meantime, I’m going to live my life as it gets on into its last half Clock as best as I can and do the right thing as often as I can. If you don’t like it or think what I’ve written is too touchy feely….well, truthfully, I couldn’t care less. I know what I have to do and I hope you know the same.

Peace out.


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Founder, Managing Principal, The 56 Group, LLC, author of several best-selling books, including CRM at the Speed of Light: Social CRM Strategies, Tools, and Techniques for Engaging Your Customers, but most importantly known as the Grandfather of CRM.