Tullman: Let me spell it out for you
Loop North News

Howard Tullman

Today’s workers often don’t care if their presentations are free from spelling mistakes or improper grammar. But they shouldn’t assume that meaning is more important than wording. It’s not. Both are part of the vital process of building a corporate culture that sets high standards and gets the details right.

19-May-19 – Certain stories and events, triumphs and disappointments, loves and losses stay with us for a lifetime. Because even as the details disappear, their messages and morals never lose their instructive impact and probative power.

And when we ourselves become educators or parents – just as the GEICO commercials suggest – we find to our amazement and amusement that we’re sedately mouthing old expressions and pithy pronouncements as if they were written on sacred stone tablets. This is one critical part of the age-old mystery of how our parents seemed so stupid when we were teens and became so much wiser as we aged.

We all have our own instances of these life lessons and, while they’re more powerful if we’ve lived through them ourselves, the fact is that sometimes even just a word or two – said in praise, haste, or anger – from a parent, coach, professor, or peer can be just as instructive and meaningful and stick with us for decades thereafter.

Other valuable lessons can come as readily from observation and education as from direct experience. People around us can be great behavioral examples or horrible warnings of exactly what not to do. One instance that I’ve never forgotten – and have explained to generations of employees – seemed trivial and maybe a little picky at the time, but the fundamental idea has stayed with me.

Photo by Gerhard Seybert

My high school daughter brought home a paper that she proudly noted was inscribed with an ‘A.’ She insisted that I read it immediately and so I tried to do just that. But there was a word misspelled in the first paragraph.

I soldiered on but soon tripped over two more spelling errors. I lost my train of thought and honestly much of my interest in continuing.

Ordinarily, we process meaning before details, but not when the intake process and our concentration are interrupted. I was, sadly, left to my own devices. Giving in to my worst lawyerly instincts, I grabbed a pen and circled the mistakes. And then I tried to finish the essay. But the thrill was gone, and I found myself wondering what kind of crappy teacher awards an ‘A’ for a paper full of spelling errors without even noting the mistakes?

My daughter wasn’t overly pleased with my persnickety approach and told me that, according to her teacher, “it was the thought that counts.”

I suddenly felt obliged, on behalf of all of us who believe that correct spelling and good grammar aren’t really editorial “choices,” to take issue with her teacher’s approach, which actually sounded more like an excuse for laziness on her part than any educational strategy or philosophy.

Proofreading – painstaking but important

Even the best writers – and I don’t claim to be one of them – and editors – ditto – make mistakes. Maybe you’ll find some in this column. But the point is we try to minimize them by proofreading. It’s one of those tasks that’s painstaking but important. You must pay attention and, of course, it helps to know how to spell. In the case of my daughter’s teacher, I wasn’t so sure she did either.

Keep in mind that these were the pre-spellcheck days, although I’m not sure that attempting to automate our shortcomings has really improved the situation too terribly much. Letting the machine do the heavy lifting and assume the blame for errors is just another excuse for our own lack of focus. Tightly focused attention is what ultimately facilitates real learning. When you concentrate on your work – regardless of how ordinary or repetitive the tasks may be – you enrich the effort and your actions take on new forms. You notice and attend to different things. Where the focus goes, energy flows.

The experience is very much like the first time that a beginning runner learns to manage and control her breathing and incorporates that behavior into her training. A new state of awareness is achieved and performance, as well as endurance, immediately improves. It’s a Zen-like state and all about the flow.

Massage and fondle the details

This awareness rarely happens by accident. It’s always a matter of application. I wanted my daughter to love writing as much as I did, and good writing is all about massaging and fondling the details – the individual words, the pace, and pauses – and then melding the ultimate accumulation of all those bits and pieces into a good story.

There’s a joy in the creative process and a satisfaction and pride in the result that is almost indescribable. But the best art in any form is always bound by constraints, and in writing, the precision and exactitude of the language are crucial.

The premise of the teacher’s suggestion was that the substance of the essay is more important than the form. Telling kids that the details don’t matter is as unhelpful and counterproductive to their education as anything I can imagine. Pretending that spelling and grammar are irrelevant in school and, more important, in the real world is flat-out foolish if not fraudulent. And it’s leading whole generations of kids down the wrong path.

This isn’t just a problem in high school. What’s scarier is that I see the same inattention in our colleges and in the workplace. Blaming the problems on technology such as autofill or autocorrect is no answer. And claiming that you don’t have the time to do things carefully and well is the worst excuse of all.

Apparently, most of the world is just too busy to worry about whether the proper word is hear/here, wear/where or their/there. We’re all consumed by busy-ness instead of taking care of business.

Photo by Brad Calkins

‘Good enough’ on a slippery, sloppy slope

Once you start to accept the idea that “almost right” is as good as it’s going to get, you are on a very slippery and sloppy slope. And that attitude is contagious. If “good enough” is the best you can expect from your people and becomes the standard, then pretty much anything goes. People figure there’s no reason to show up on time, pick up after themselves, do their homework or the research necessary to know what they’re talking about, carefully document their code and their transactions, or basically care that much about anything in the business. That would be asking way too much.

And slowly, your company’s culture crumbles. Values don’t break abruptly, they deteriorate unless you put a sharp stop to the process. And creating these values starts with sweating the small stuff because that’s the foundation of everything else that follows.

Do what must be done. When it must be done. As well as it can be done. Do it that way every day. For tasks large and small – important and seemingly insignificant as well.

You need to tell your people what’s expected of them in terms of day-in and day-out execution and then stick to your guns and demand compliance. Or you might as well pack it in. There’s never been a shortcut that was a good long-term investment in building a business. And, you’ll find that sticking to 100 percent of your principles and values is easier than sticking to 99 percent, because when you make the first exceptions and compromises, the cracks in the culture start to appear.

Adobe Stock

Now, this is not a simple black-and-white process, and sometimes the hardest thing to do is to reconcile your company’s conflicting goals and objectives. We want our people to move quickly, to make decisions on the front line, to exercise good judgment and initiative when necessary, and so on and so forth.

But we also expect them to be careful and thoughtful, to make sound decisions based on data and not emotions or outside pressures, and to always act first in the best interests of the customer.

The smartest thing that a confused newbie can do in a startup, where things are moving a mile a minute, is to ask someone for the right answer. The worst thing he or she can do is to guess – albeit guessing is quicker, easier, and less embarrassing – and then when things blow up, to blame the mistake on the desire to show initiative. Even if a particular guess turns out okay for the moment, adhering to the protocols and making the proper preparation is the right way to go in the long run.

Bottom line: everything starts with you. People pay far more attention to what you do than to what you say. They’ll all take their own behavioral cues from the ways you act and just how much attention you pay to the little things in the business that actually – cumulatively – matter the most.

Let me repeat: sweating the small stuff is worth the suffering. Cultures and values are fragile things – especially in startups – and they morph and are challenged daily. Life is easy when things are going well and much more difficult when the time comes for the toughest decisions and the buck stops with you.

If you don’t stick to your values in every instance when they’re tested – large and small – they aren’t really values. They’re hobbies.

Photos: Brad Calkins, Gerhard Seybert, Adobe Stock

By Howard Tullman | Loop North News | h@g2t3v.com

Published 19-May-19 2:44 AM

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