Friday, May 2, 2008

Scoring the Target

DSC06837 Stitch

I'm visiting HQ in Minneapolis with a Dutch physician who is a longstanding friend: it's been fun contrasting US and Netherlands social and cultural artifacts all week.

A big opportunity came after dinner last night, he asked if we could stop somewhere to pick up a disposable razor.

'No problem: in the US, there's only one place to go for that sort of thing and I know where there's one, right by the hotel...

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"Sooper Target?"

Trust me, it's like Blokkers.

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...'Kind of....

The Dutch do have discount stores, and large AH No 5 stores, but I've never found anything of the type and scale of Target. It makes me wonder if there isn't an opportunity to bring the first Sooper Target to the Netherlands?

I pointed out the wonders of American consumerism unheard-of back home: the mile-long aisle of baking supplies, the 34 (empty) cashier lanes, the easy availability of all types of stylish reading glasses and (synthetic) butter-drenched microwave popcorn.

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He found the selection and prices more interesting than the novel types of items, though: the strong euro makes Target look unbelievably cheap.

The razor aisle was intimidating: it took some searching to find men's razors among the women's, electrics, trimmers, and gels.

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And, even when we had a selection, we got (inevitably) diverted on our way to the (34) check-outs.

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...which, in turn, necessitated backtracking to return the original selection to it's home. I suspect the Dutch stay thin by repeatedly dashing across the store to replace items when they find it cheaper on an end-aisle display. 'No use pointing out that an American would have simply dropped the one he was holding to pick up the one he wanted.

I asked a saleswoman where I could find a bottle of wine: she looked confused. "I don't think we sell it...maybe back in the fruit drinks?"

My friend looked smug: despite all the excess, we still couldn't stock life's core comforts.

or, at least, not in Minnesota before Noon on Sunday or to Children Under the Age of 21.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

How many hours in a workday?

I'm back in Minneapolis for a few days, with sunny skies and warm breezes bringing the trees into first bud.  'up early, I've got some quiet time to read and write.  In the corner of the room, the morning news is showcasing Istanbul and grilling Barak Obama.  Closer to home, I am thinking about time with a friend, last night, who is spending a long weekend opening his cabin, repairing the dock, putting his boat in the water.  Fishermen always know, so it must be spring.

I like working in the uncluttered quiet of the morning.  I feel more creative and can draw together thoughts across more general ideas. It's a time for sipping coffee and watching the streets wake up, morning light and listening to the early birds.  There's usually a couple of hours available for reading, writing, and reflecting before heading in to work at 8:30.

By afternoon, I'm more convergent, bearing down on writing and data analysis, focused and able to close things out.  I deliberately leave by 5:30 to force an exercise break and some food shopping, avoiding entanglement in US conference calls, and my evening beyond 8 becomes my quieter time again.

In contrast, here in the US, where core work hours are nine to four, serious people are expected to be in by 7:30 and stay past 6.  Today, for example, meetings are scheduled at 8, and activities stretch through seminars and lab work to a dinner meeting at 7.  I don't think this is unusual among US companies, but it isn't productive either.  Flow doesn't sustain over that period, and everyone's energy flags by late afternoon.

But, even as I write that, I fondly remember the "four-ten" work week that I had when I first moved to Seattle.  The company hours were 7:30 to 6, Monday through Thursday, with a three day weekend.  I loved it: there was time to finish larger projects during the days, and time to enjoy the weekends more fully.

No, any "twenty four / seven" Blackberry lifestyle would be completely unacceptable.  I refuse to carry a PDA, and don't feel any compulsion to log into the corporate system to answer business e-mails on the weekend.

It seems like one consequence of moving work out of the office will be a focus on results achieved rather than hours present.  Patterns of workday hours may change as well.  Artists and writers fit their workday to their creative periods and projects; consultants and some technical and scientific workers can do the same.  A similar, more flexible fit is certainly something that I'll want to try to achieve in the future.

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Americans in Amsterdam (video)

NBC Amsterdam The Today Show is a national, daily American television program with light news and features to help people connect to the world gently as they get up and out the door in the morning.  Their roving correspondent, Matt Lauer, drops into cities around the world, giving people perspectives on other cultures.

This week he visited Amsterdam, Delft, and Leiden, reporting on Dutch tourism, tulips, and lifestyles.  He is married to a Dutch woman, and plunged into elements of the Netherlands (such as the correct style for Jenever-sipping and the quality of Dutch humor) that don't usually appear in video essays.

The clips last a few minutes each and are available from the show's website, along with blogs and essays by the correspondents and crew.  They are fun to watch and cover a range of US cross-cultural perspectives.

I'm on the road to Minneapolis and Seattle for the next week, traveling with a Dutch physician who swears that nobody ever drinks Jenever in the style they use on this program.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Curiosity and Experience

The French business school, INSEAD, is making a variety of papers and presentations on global business issues available through their Knowledge website.  There's been a good focus on the people-centered aspects of engaging with international partners and customers, including articles on cross-cultural negotiation, diverse hiring, emerging-country entrepreneurship, and social development. 

The dean, Frank Brown, recently published an article on global business leadership: I was intrigued by his emphasis on cross-cultural curiosity, as opposed to simply expatriate experience:

‘Transcultural’ leaders at the helm of international companies need to be sensitive to other cultures and national differences. That means leaders today need to be willing to explore and travel.  They need to be curious about other people and customs. This awareness and willingness to engage and be intellectually curious about what’s going on in the rest of the world is an absolutely critical component to being effective in a transcultural environment.

I think that this is a really important distinction.

High-potential business talent is seasoned for greater responsibility through rotation programs, spending time in jobs across functions and divisions of the organization.  I don't think it's as effective as taking longer-term responsibility for actually running a business.  Rotations make it too easy to leave before the consequences of decisions can develop, creating disengaged leaders who manage by reference to academic portfolio theory, Harvard case study aphorisms, and analyst's stock valuation.

In contrast, I think that the greatest value that senior managers bring to our staff meetings is their commitment and experience gained from running a business.  Addressing problems ranging from organizational plumbing to market strategy, solutions are found when people discuss their stories, not articles.

And insightful personal stories are the result of engaged careers, with a personal curiosity to understand and a drive to do things better.

I think that Dr. Brown has it right: "Anybody who aspires to be a leader needs to focus beyond their own backyard. A lot of leadership is learned, and a lot comes through being in a position to get the right experience."

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Exploring the Vecht

How do all the big sailboats get into the Vechtplassen?

A map of the area shows the lakes to the right, and the twisting Vecht river to the left, passing through (of course) Loenen aan de Vecht. The straight cut of the Amsterdam-Rijnkanaal passes diagonally at the far left.

Vecht River

The Kanaal is the logical place for large boats to pass from the sea into the Plassen, but as I search along it's length, I could not find a direct connection to the Vecht river. The closest suggestion seemed to be at Nigtevecht, a small village east of Abcoude. Google's maps have a suggestion of a connection to a bend in the Vecht, but the arial shot is certainly ambiguous.

Nigtevecht map

Nigtevecht satellite

It's a slow, sunny Sunday: so why not check it out?

The Amsterdam Rijnkanaal must be one of the most utilitarian waterways anywhere: dead straight, lined only with a road, a railroad, and a single row of trees. The only interesting thing is that the water in the canal is visibly higher than the level of the surrounding fields: I have absolute confidence in Dutch mastery of this balance.

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Arriving in Nigtevecht, this is the view east at the bend in the Vecht with the canal to my back. The river bend is tagged with markers pointing the way north to Muiden.

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However, a bit of tramping about (and ignoring a few "verboden toegang" signs) does turn up the connection between the two.

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Locks with a slot between them, one opening directly onto the Canal, and another beneath the bridge. Today, both sets of gates were open. So, interestingly, the river and the canal sometimes, but not always, need to be separated, and the Dutch have defined spots along the Vecht where this can happen. The direction of the lock's opening suggests that the water rises higher on the canal side locks, and that they form a barrier to prevent backflow into the Vecht when this happens.

It's also clear that, far from being a meandering creek, the Vecht is a perfectly navigable river in its own right. Few pleasure boats seemed inclined to challenge the commercial traffic on the canal: mostly they steamed from the south, around the bend, and on towards the Ijsselmeer without a glance at the Amsterdam-Rijn.

'Just to prove it, I drove the single lane riverside road out of Nigtevecht all the way up towards Weesp. It's a nice lane, lined with chateaus and cottages, too tight for cars to pass, so I periodically had to back up to clear the road for others.

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So, I arrived in Muiden with a much better understanding of why the castle is there: protecting the mouth of the Vecht as the waterway into the heart of North Holland. And, best of all, it was still early enough to find a table along the locks, catch a bit of sun, and watch all the boat traffic.

Vechtplassen and Utrecht blues

With temperatures soaring to 23 deg C this weekend, it was a perfect day to go out with a friend to explore the countryside.

imageOn several occasions, trying to get overland to Schiphol, I've been blocked by lakes and waterways north of Utrecht. This area is the Vechtplassen (literally Ponds of the Vecht river, shown in a map, right, from Natuurkaart.nl, and more commonly known as the Loosdrechtse Plassen). The lakes are divided into smaller ponds, separated by dikes and surrounded by small villages. The shoreline is extensively serrated, a result of extensive peat mining in the area during the Golden Age. Today, these canals support boat moorings and holiday homes, very reminiscent of the Norfolk Broads in England. It's a great outdoor recreation area, and a perfect place to enjoy a warm, sunny day.

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The main recreation is boating and fishing,and the lake was filled with people on the water, all flying huge Dutch flags. There were lots of sloop-rigged and gaff-rigged sailboats reminiscent of Norfolk, classical stylings with lots of teak and wonderful lines. The motor boats resembled large lifeboats, broad and deep with rounded ends, able to carry a lot of people (or fishing gear and beer!).

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The shores are filled with holiday homes, mostly modest waterfront houses and beach trailers. The Dutch have largely escaped the blight of trophy mansions that encrust US shores. Even so, Paulmakelaars.nl indicates that these sell for between 150,000 and 1 million euros (still low compared to US waterfront). There was a lot of construction, though: I hope the area isn't being 'discovered'.

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We headed down to Utrecht for an unusual dinner at The Ostrich. They offer 'authentic' African cooking styles and ingredients (crocodile, zebra, etc.). I tried the ostrich (half expecting chicken), and found it different, but good: a consistency like beef and a strong taste of fowl. The kudu (a bit like an antelope) was a very good cross between beef and venison. The canalside ambience is much better than the close darkness inside the restaurant: 'lots of party boats and a lingering twilight that keeps stimulating laughter and new conversations over an extended meal.

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The annual Utrecht Blues festival was on from 10 pm until 1 am all weekend. I went to graduate school North of Chicago, hanging out in great blues clubs like Biddy Mulligans and Kingston Mines. Unfortunately, Utrecht's styles ran from rock with no blues to blues ballads fused to rock-a-billy or reggae. 'Good music and a very pleasant (suprisingly middle-aged) crowd, but the music left me longing for the old clubs, sorry.

Travel Notes: Reach the Vechtpassen via the N201, either from the A1 through Hilversum or the A2 at Vreeland. Dutch roadworks are in full swing, and the N201 is torn up in spots east of the ponds; detours are long and tortuous. The best paths across the area are from Oud-Loosdrecht west across a dike dividing the north and south parts of the main lake, or west from Nieuw-Loosdrecht to Tienhoven at the southern end. There is an open-air cafe at Tienhoven that is a great place to have lunch and watch the boats.