Don't Apologize Unless You Mean It

I stabbed a kid once.

We were cleaning gear from a Boy Scout campout in the Methodist church kitchen and Jon Perkins and I got to horsing around, at which point I picked up a butcher knife and pretended to terrorize him, chasing him around the room. He stopped short and the blade sank about a half-inch deep into the skin between his shoulder blades. I was mortified, and probably apologized a dozen times (breathlessly, I might add) as the Scoutmaster pondered disciplinary action.

Now, that incident made an impression on me and I never stabbed anyone again. But most apologies pass our lips and are quickly forgotten. You probably apologize to a spouse or close family member several times a week, but can you remember the situation?

My wife and I have a solid marriage of 31 years. But we have a fundamental disagreement about apologies. I will admit I’m the flawed one. I want to apologize and move on; she wants me to apologize, then demonstrate over time how I’m working to change my ways. I want the quick closure an apology brings. Check the box and move on. She has feelings (of course) and isn’t easily placated by the utterance of a few words in a solicitous tone of voice.

When it comes to politicians, CEOs, athletes and celebrities, the public seems to favor my wife’s point of view. A simple spoken apology is inadequate; we are loathe to forgive unless the person backs it up with action.

My personal favorite is “I’m sorry if I offended anyone.” Seriously, you’re going to make it conditional?

These forms of mea culpa do nothing more than provoke further outrage. Instead of dousing the fire with water, they add gasoline:

Lance Armstrong apologized, but failed to answer the question “Did you dope?” Grade: F.
New Jersey Governor Chris Christie apologized multiple times, but has it changed anything? Grade: D-.
Target CEO Gregg Steinhafel apologized for allowing hackers to steal our personal data. I'm willing to give him an “Incomplete” because it’s too early to tell how effective the company’s remediation will be, and more will surely come out during litigation.

These tepid apologies fail to score points with the public, yes. But, they also offer a lesson of how not to do it.

Andrew Ross Sorkin and Dov Seidman are putting the offenders under the microscope. Sorkin, a New York Times writer and Seidman, an advisor to companies on how to operate “in a principled and profitable way,” have declared a moratorium on apologies until we get it right. No more apologies, they say, until public figures and their PR people accompany every apology with an explanation of the steps taken to correct the problem.

They’ve asked us (yes, you and me) to make a note next time we hear a public apology and check back over time to see if the person truly made good on their word. They’ve even suggested a “time out” (I know, it sounds like CEOs are children), a go-to-your-corner and think about it before you issue another apology.

You can read more about it here and here. Let’s see if the increased public scrutiny works.

My advice to a client is: Your apology has to be sincere. And, you’d better have a three-, four- or five-point plan for change and start acting on it. You can even regain lost credibility down the road by periodically pointing out the positive change you’ve made – whether it’s treating workers better, restoring impeccable accounting or resolving customer complaints.

To Jon Perkins, wherever you are: I’m glad that knife in the back didn’t damage our relationship. I can’t comment, however, on which is worse: a real knife in the back or a figurative one.


Birds of a Feather

They’re called the bird streets. They have precious little names – Blue Jay Way, Oriole Drive, Bluebird Avenue, Skylark Lane and Robin Drive. But the homes that sit on these streets are anything but modest.

The bird streets are a clutch of winding roads in the hills above West Hollywood, an enclave built decades ago by the wealthy and famous drawn to the dazzling views of the L.A. basin. 

Of late, this neighborhood has launched the careers of celebrity realtors – see HGTV'S Selling L.A. or Million Dollar Listing Los Angeles on Bravo. And, they represent the latest mother lode for foreign investors.

Big money gets attention, and that’s what L.A. sorely needs right now. Mayor Eric Garcetti is all smiles about the exaggerated value of these wealthy neighborhoods. You see, the world’s richest people are buying up L.A.’s platinum properties as investments. They don’t live there; some of them generate a little extra cash flow by renting them for five figures a month. (If they’re going to just let it sit there I’d be happy to occupy one of these vacant mansions, tend the gardens and clean the pool.)

It’s the new world order. It used to be L.A.'s tonier neighborhoods were synonymous with their longtime residents: the Hearsts, Jack Benny, Barbra Streisand and Aaron Spelling lived in places like Holmby Hills, Bel Air and Beverly Hills. Now, investors from distant shores of unconscionable net worth are buying these homes, sometimes tearing them down and erecting something decidedly more au courant and often more ostentatious. 

Absentee owners bought more than one quarter of California’s $1 million-plus homes last year (even more staggering is the fact that nearly half the homes in the Hollywood Hills were purchased by absentee owners.) They come from China, India, Hong Kong and Tunisia. They fly in, they look, they fly out. They also look in New York and London, where prices are higher. So L.A. is still a good buy at an average $1,340 per square foot compared to $2,240 in New York and $4,300 in London.

They’re looking for an investment that bears little or no correlation to the rest of their portfolio. And real estate is just the hedge. It’s all good, according to L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti, because it’s good for the city’s reputation and for the economy.

“For too long, L.A. has not been in the global conversation,” Garcetti recently told Bloomberg News. “I want those people to come here. I want those people to talk about L.A. when they go back.”

While the film industry struggles to reverse the trend of “runaway production,” this is good news, a positive trend. We don’t care who you are so long as you’re bringing green to the economy. It’s a global world, after all. Frankly, I’m energized by the international nature of Los Angeles – a city that is anything but provincial. 

We’re seeing foreign investment not only in homes but in massive properties, scalable businesses and startups. The future of cities this size is in their ability to foster opportunity for investors of every stripe. I have no problem with this so long as the dollars or dinar keep flowing into our economy and keep L.A. relevant and vibrant.

Money talks, and L.A. doesn’t care what language it’s speaking.


Putting the People Ahead of Privilege

My daughter just texted me that they were getting more snow in Lawrence, Kansas – along with photographic proof from the Dillon’s parking lot. It’s been a brutal winter in the Midwest, Northeast and Southeast.

We were remembering the many dismal winters in the ‘80s and ‘90s and my wife reminded me that when Dick Berkley was mayor of Kansas City the first street that got plowed after a snowstorm was Greenway Terrace. I’m sure this still happens everywhere; heck, it’s possible that Kansas City mayor Sly James’ street is the first to get the blade.

The point is, it doesn’t matter so long as the other streets are treated with equal urgency, and the city where I lived for three decades seems to be getting it right – finally. A recent article in the Kansas City Star points out that snow removal in the last snowstorm was damned efficient and the public was, for the most part, pleased.

Aside from improvements in forecasting and GPS technology and the hard work of the crews, the X-factor seems to be the mayor himself. Now, the article points out, the mayor doesn’t run the city; the city manager does. But James seems to be setting a tone that all leaders should emulate. He’s visible, he’s aware and he’s accountable.

Kansas City Mayor Sly James
Kansas City Star

James scored major points for showing up on the 5 o’clock news from the command center, giving tips to help residents prepare and assuring them that the snowplows were ready to roll. People want to know someone is in charge, and whether or not that person is pulling the strings, perception is reality. Not only have residents warmed to James’ transparency, but his mere presence at the command center no doubt boosted the morale of city workers.

Of course, the proof is in the pudding, and this time around most gave the city high marks. I can remember a time when our side street in the Armour Hills district never did get plowed and it would turn to ice for the rest of the winter. Obviously, Kansas City’s public works department has come a long way and it’s due to effective planning and preparation, but in the end the only thing people will remember is the reassuring presence of their leader.


Facebook? That's Nothing New

We had a facebook back in 1976. It was about 50 pages long and full of beguiling photos.

I had just started college and every student was issued a Freshman Directory so we could get to know each other.

Of course this quickly devolved into us guys sitting around late at night, flipping the pages, looking for the cutest girls in our class.

“Does she really look that hot?”

“I don’t think so. John Kermath says she’s in his Lit 151 seminar and she’s marginal, at best.”

“Wow! Look at so-and-so. Is she really a student here?”

“I think I saw her at Harry’s Luncheonette with a bunch of guys. No way you’re getting near her.”

And so it went.

Whenever we got bored, out came the Freshman Directory and we perused more faces, hoping to recognize someone new, hoping to make a connection.

Years later, Zuckerberg came along and digitized the whole thing. And you know the rest of the story.

Today, Facebook claims to bring 1.23 billion people together. Not a second goes by when one of my 561 friends isn’t posting or commenting.

Freshman faces at my alma mater
I have to admit I have a love-hate relationship with Facebook. Sometimes I relish seeing what my friends and long-lost contacts are up to. Other times I have a sort of disdain for the exhibitionism. I have a handful of friends who make me belly laugh (and they do it effortlessly). Some are profound thinkers and some are excellent writers – they know how to express their thoughts and feelings.

I guess my life is enriched by the experience, then. Without Facebook, I probably wouldn’t realize how smart/funny/engaging/extraordinary these people are.

Today, friends are posting movies of their Facebook lives. It’s really pretty cool. A nice birthday present to all of us who took a deep breath and took the plunge into this community.

We’ve come a long way from the Freshman Directory of 1976. Wonder what became of that girl at Harry’s Luncheonette?