Innovation: Beyond Lip Service

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It”s amazing how often I’m reminded that everyone wants better, nobody wants change.

A few years ago, I was approached by the COO of a public company. A new executive team was recently installed in an effort by the board to shake things up. All were outsiders, with the exception of the CEO, who’d risen up the ranks. The COO told me they were looking to explore sweeping innovations to the brand and the core products and wondered if I’d be interested in joining the team to spearhead that.

The thought of becoming an employee again at this point in my entrepreneurial journey was a bit terrifying. But I’d be coming in at a level that would give me both extraordinary resources and the ability to innovate and create on the level that allows for high-level impact, meaning and personal gratification.

Or, so I thought…

I went through a battery of interviews. All went great. Though, everyone kept asking why I’d ever consider leaving the working lifestyle I’ve built over the years. Then it was time to sit down for a “real” conversation with the CEO. We’d already done the “yes, you’re not a total freak” conversation a few times over. And, it was during this final conversation that my Something’s Wrong meter went ballistic.

The CEO asked me to share some ideas about where to take the brand moving forward. A few minutes in, he stopped me. No, he said, followed by the equivalent of…

“I want to know how you’d take existing product X and tweak it so that it feels new and maybe even looks new so that we can have the appearance of new, but not have to undertake the risk, anxiety and uncertainty of it actually being new.”

The first time this happened, I thought maybe we were just warming into the juicy stuff. Or maybe he was just testing me, to see if I really had the will to drive change. But, then every time I explored shifting the conversation from superficial tweaks to genuine innovation, he directed me back to talk only about very modest, incremental change.

On the surface, this was an extraordinary opportunity for me. A killer paycheck, equity, C-level position, resources and control. But, after sparring with the CEO, it became crystal clear that, while he yearned for the revitalized revenue and reputation that comes from being a true innovator, he had no interest in investing in and embracing the disruption it would take to get there.

Innovation comes with risk, with a concerted shaking of the status quo.

One that requires you to make decisions, invest resources and take actions to create what’s never been created before. That terrifies most people. And, though this CEO and his team were working to inculcate a new focus on the language of innovation, in truth, that’s all it was. Language. Lip service.

Which is a bit tragic. Because organizational innovation requires unwavering support from the top down. It requires not just permission to think differently, but rather a specific, resource-backed mandate to experiment, risk and innovate. One that’s backed not just by words, but by process, resources, intention and deeds.

One of the worst things you can do as a leader is pay lip-service to a quest, then eviscerate every initiative that threatens to breath life into it.

It will destroy your peoples’ faith in you, your word, your mission, your organization and your culture.

So, when this CEO’s line of questioning to me signalled he was doing that just, I called him on it. Then I circled back to the COO and the SVP of Talent to let them know what I’d experienced. I told them that, while I’d had great conversations about innovation with them, the CEO was telegraphing a serious lack of genuine commitment to innovation beyond tweaks. And, that would be an impossible environment in which to create. In the end, we parted paths.

Because…

Life’s too short to spend your days banging your head against someone else’s wall.

And, much to the chagrin of many…

Innovation doesn’t come with a woobie.

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61 responses

61 responses to “Innovation: Beyond Lip Service”

  1. Ruth Shultz says:

    I think you are right when you say, “Life’s too short to spend your days banging your head against someone elses wall.”
    I often wonder to myself, if they didn’t think they could pull it off the first time why are they asking me to do it for them the 3rd or 12th time? I like coming up with original ides and using them as catapults for my writing.

  2. Susan Hyatt says:

    “Innovation doesn’t come with a woobie.” Best. Line. Ever.

  3. Barb says:

    You are so accurate! I just realized the same thing with a much smaller client. After a week of listening and interjecting some thoughts a light bulb came on! Lip service! The only change the owner thought was doable wasn’t change at all. This was a small businesses and I was dealing with the owner. Another flag was that everyone she had dealt with in the past was wrong. I was so relieved to walk away instead of signing up for “banging my head against someone elses wall.”
    I am finally beginning to consider at what cost does this job come. If its more than the pay I am respecting myself and my emotional health and walking away.

    • Jonathan Fields says:

      No doubt, this phenomenon isn’t limited to employers, it also happens all the time with prospective and even current clients. People want to be perceived as moving the ball forward, but they don’t want to have to leave the confines their existing playgrounds to do it.

      So clients will look to outside consultants or vendors to “bring the change” inside, without first owning the unease that always comes from genuine evolution.

      It hard to really cast blame, the response is rooted deeply in human nature. But when you place someone who’s unwilling to wade into the unknown in a leadership position, that’s often when the madness begins.

  4. Christopher says:

    I’d also rather bang my head against my own wall then your wall. I currently bang it on a daily basis. And I’d rather bang it thann even be inside someone else’s walls.

    I’m reminded of this quote by George Bernard Shaw…

    “The reasonable man adapts himself to the world: the unreasonable one persists to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.”

    Perhaps I’m unreasonable for the concussion I’ve given myself from all the banging, but the goal of progress is a worthwhile one.

  5. The exact reason as to why I left my corporate job!!

    A world where the front liners were asked to “challenge the status quo”, implement innovative ideas. When an individual would take this initiative, they were given feedback for not being a team leader.

    I was leading several teams at the time, encouraging them to take risks. Obviously when you encourage someone to exceed their limits, develop their creativity and strength, there is a learning curve which can bring on mistakes. In guiding them to learn from their mistakes and achieve results that were saving the company MILLIONS OF DOLLARS, I was given feedback for giving any disciplinary measures!!!!

    I realized that I was waisting my effort and energy and took a major turn!

  6. I’m in London. Loved the article but don’t know what “woodbie ” means? Any one help?

    As the saying goes ” the only thing you get for nothing is ……….nothing”

    • Jonathan Fields says:

      Hey Stirling –

      Woobie = security blanket for kids. So, now I’m curious, what’s it called in London?

      • Stirling says:

        Jonathan,

        Woobie……….there is no equivalent here in the UK. We just say “security blanket”. Most kids give their security blanket a name. Our eldest son called his Bluey (it was a blue blanket!).

        Thanks for the article – great stuff

        • Geneve Hoffman says:

          Arent they called loveys in Britain?? Or DooDoo? :). To be fair, i am an American…ive never heard of Woobie…lol.

  7. Jude Spacks says:

    Love the line about the woobie–never heard that word before.

    I’ve met the same kind of struggle within individuals (such as myself ;-)) The clash between genuinely wanting change and wincing from the inevitable risk and disruption can keep a person grinding their mind into burnout with a lot of spin and not much forward motion.

    To me, a deep comfort is available in creating real change– a security that doesn’t depend on outcomes: when you move from the integrity of the inner truth of who you really are. But you know that!

  8. Allison says:

    What a great way to start the week. Thank you, as always, for sharing your insights.

  9. Ok gotta ask “what is a Woobie?”

    Yeah this is the BS that makes me wanna bang their head against their own wall – oh dear I said that outloud.

  10. Ligia Buzan says:

    I am grateful for this post, Jonathan. I had a similar experience recently. The people who engaged me wanted change, but did not want me to disturb the status quo. Your book “Uncertainly” could not be more timely. How wonderful that you did not “need” this job, and you could say NO. This is the best, most wonderfully liberating word: NO!

  11. Banging your head against someone else’s wall!

    Can’t think of a better description for what gives doctors and patients a headache in the US healthcare system.

    Perfect post,Jonathan.

  12. There are too many phenomenal possibilities available to waste time with people who lie to themselves and others.

  13. Brilliant quality (as usual).

    I think at some point or the other Seth Godin said “safe is risky, risky is safe.” You can’t increment and pretend your way along to “built to last.”

    In a connected world now where we as individuals can make an enormous difference, it’s not enough to pretend. Phoning it in is a dead end.

    It’s such a shame that for most people, fear of failure (and short sighted self interest) wins over living life as a courageous difference maker.

    Bravo to the “somethings wrong meter.” Thanks for the awesome post !!

    • Jonathan Fields says:

      incremental improvement definitely has its place in the world. But big insight-based problem solving and innovation doesn’t come from a place of safety. Plus, there is no iterative process without first having a big scary idea.

  14. Wayne Nelson says:

    Jonathan,

    Thanks for this.
    You are always a great read.

    At one point in my illustrious career as an “employee,” I headed up the marketing dept. of a major transportation company.
    “Innovate!” was the mantra. “We want to be the leader in our industry!” So I innovated my tail off… which got me an audience with the CEO.
    “What the HE__ are you doing?!” he demanded to know.
    Same story as yours, Jonathan – everyone else loved the direction, ideas and implementations… except the CEO. UGH!
    Ironically, the business was doing better and the bottom line was fatter.

    That experience taught me to be ultra-cautious and crystal-clear when it comes to the definition of “Innovate.”
    I believe most people mean “Renovate.” Even baby steps toward innovating can be too much for some to stomach.

    I’m an entrepreneurial lifer.

    Cheers!

    • Jonathan Fields says:

      Building on the “renovate” analogy. It’s the difference between making cosmetic changes and making structural changes, often requiring you to first build temporary support while you knock down a few weight bearing walls to make room for something bigger and better

  15. Jen Gresham says:

    You know I’m an admirer, but this just further solidifies it. What a great demonstration of listening to your own personal definition of success.

    This risk aversion is such a pervasive problem. It’s not the exception, but the rule. What I wonder is: what happens after the explosion of entrepreneurship? Will those trail-blazers, those nonconformists, “grow up” to lead companies that truly embrace innovation and risk? Because I think the other thing we don’t talk about is that it’s often easier, much easier, to take risks, even big risks, when you’re small.

    Does getting to a certain size often lead to inhibition?

  16. It’s so interesting that the COO and SVP of Talent, (who seem to be the active recruiters of the org), are convinced that sweeping change is possible without the CEO’s support.

    Had you brushed aside the (glaring) red flags, they would likely hang all hopes and expectations of change on your shoulders. All while lacking true support from the top down.
    Talk about a challenging and demotivating situation…

    More eager/desperate candidates ignore those red flags and take the gig.

    Few larger companies take the step back and ask the hard questions: Are we even making anything COOL? Is the marketing presenting a new opportunity here?

    An old sales mentor had a great phrase for re-marketing the same old crap: “Dress them old gals up! We’re taking them out on the town! Again.” LOL.

    I experience the tension of sweeping vs. incremental change in the advertising industry all the time. The average tenure of a Chief Marketing Officer is somewhere between 18 months and 2 years on the long end of things. With no time to set long-term change into motion, they typically fire and hire a new agency, and then take their brand further down the direct response tunnel. Trouble is, while DR is necessary on some levels, it can be damaging for brands over the long term. (Think Dell, as compared to Apple).

    So, a lot of brands end up scrambling to get… marginalized.

    I would think the ONLY thing that could pull JF back into that world would be the innovation-equivalent of an office on Neptune.

    Love that you’re so wide open to any-and-all inspired opportunities. Just don’t FREAK ME OUT, man. hahahah

    Great reminder to put my change where my mouth is.

    kc

    • Jonathan Fields says:

      It’s a really interesting observation.

      They came to me, I didn’t need the job, nor was I convinced I wanted it. So every conversation wasn’t just about them interviewing me, but rather me interviewing them. They knew they had to sell me as much as I had to sell them.

      That perspective gave me the ability to really zoom the lens out and see the social, political and power dynamic more clearly. I occasionally wonder what might have happened if I came into the process desperate for the position and hellbent on selling myself to them.

  17. Midwesterner says:

    Great post, and I too needed to look up the slang term “woobie” (child’s security blanket/fuzzy toy) – nice to see it’s not just a generational difference but rather a geographic one that made the word unfamiliar.

  18. Thanks for this nudge to all of us to really step up to deep innovation. I’m glad you told this story and also glad that you spoke your truth to the people at the organization. It’s not your job to change the CEO’s mind but I imagine you were one of the few people to call him on his invisible ‘stuff’.

    Integrity always wins, doesn’t it?

  19. I think you hit the nail on the head, Jonathan. The risk, the stretch and the quest for innovation separates the boys from the men. I’ve worked with organizations who wanted to repackage old ideas and sell them as something new. Their interest wasn’t really in innovation at all. I see it happen regularly. Your statement, “One of the worst things you can do as a leader is pay lip-service to a quest, then eviscerate every initiative that threatens to breathe life into it” holds the ultimate truth for leading change. That type of thinking not only threatens innovation and excellence, but can deal a deathblow to the cohesiveness of the very teams that drive the organization. Many leaders are afraid to accept risk (or fail to truly understand innovation) and that fear leads them to sacrifice trust, respect and the possibility of creating positive change. Thank you for shining the light!

    • Jonathan Fields says:

      I actually believe it’s more damaging to publicly embrace innovation, without intending action that to never embrace innovation to start with.

      Both betoken a lack of desire to evolve, but the former also destroys belief and faith in leadership

  20. Dave Lowry says:

    Absolutely great post and with perfect timing (for me). And thanks for “woobie”, my new word for 6/11/2012.

    Hope this is an OK question to ask… How did the CEO/COO react to your honesty and the resulting “no”?

  21. Bill says:

    Jonathan,

    What your CEO is really looking for is a value added product (assuming you are making something). This is like taking fried chicken and making a line of “broiled” chicken for the more healthy eaters. True innovation requires knowing as much about your customers needs and possibilities as the product you are making. Innovation in the plant requires deep foresight. The Russian make used to make their cigarettes the same caliber as their rifles…in time of emergency they could make bullet casings with their cigarette machines. Pretty innovative thinking on the part of the cigarette makers.

  22. Sarah says:

    This story does not surprise me at all. I have experienced this personally at my own job, and it is disappointing in so many ways. The sad part is for the employees who believe the message of “we want new, we want better!” and come up with ideas only to have every single one shot down with no support from anyone. It’s hard to find real leaders who don’t just say one thing but mean another.

  23. Jonathan, I really love this post. Thank you so much for sharing this experience. It’s amazing to hear that distinction between wanting incremental change and wanting breakthroughs. Most people are totally up for incremental change. Because of course they are. But when you desire breakthroughs, it means you’re looking to play a much bigger game. And of course, you have to invite breakdowns first! I just think it’s great that you got yourself out as soon as you recognized that the environment would be volatile for innovation. Well done 😀

  24. I’m glad to hear you share your story of courage and truth telling in the corporate world.

    It has been more than 20 years since I left my corporate marketing, yuppie lifestyle behind to live true to my heart. I have eaten straw for many of them, as I have walked the path of integrity, step by step in the direction of evolving an ancient stress reducing healing music modality.

    In March, I was offered a temporary project – the first time in all these years, that I became an employee. I figured it would be a good experience to learn a new aspect of marketing for the launch of Miriam’s Secret – Discovering Your Inner Well of Wisdom, a multi media project that helps people connect and express their inner power.

    It was a bizarre experience. First of all, I worked here in Israel from midnight to six in the morning – since the clients were in the USA.

    Secondly, I have not had a boss for so many year, and certainly not one younger than me by several years.

    In the name of innovation, and innovative project financing, I found the whole experience an exciting challenge. I also found it physically exhausting.

    When I saw how much money I made for the company – it gave me the courage to take the next leap forward in my own healing music business.

    I imagined what might happen if I take the same courage and initiative to work out of the box… even more than I do… what might it bring.

    This gave me courage to sell off an investment apartment – the one I use as my safety net – for my retirement.

    I figure – what am I waiting for? Would I rather hold on to the apartment – for the illusion of safety? Or would I rather meet the inner fear of the unknown, and commit to following through on the commitment that I so courageously made twenty years ago which brought me to the land of Israel, teaching me how to live in peace and calm, even in times of war and political unrest.

    Innovation is what we find when we meet our heart at the intersection of self acceptance especially in those gooey icky hours of dark unknown.

    Thanks for being you!
    Your voice really makes a difference.
    It feels so good to connect.

  25. Gemma says:

    Totally, absolutely agree.

    A similar thing (on a MUCH smaller scale) happened to me while I worked for a media agency. I’d recently been promoted to a senior web developer role which meant I go to sit in on all the big gun meetings and talk “shop”. The first meeting I was involved in was about the lack of new clients we had and how to gain more clients.

    Their idea? Lets get some free pens and send them out to people.

    I was a little open-mouthed, and not being shy in coming forwards, I said, “Don’t you think it would be better if we could offer one of our services for free to a new client, to show what value we could give them?”. I suggested a free SEO report or a report on how we could improve their online presence or email campaign.

    The Big Cheeses looked at me like I was emanating some sort of hideous odour. Mr Main Cheese sort of grimaced, pretended to consider it, and then went back to the original idea of sending out a bunch of free pens.

    I wasn’t invited to any more of those meetings, and I got fed up of the lack of action they took in trying to get some great clients and set up on my own, where I can take pride in pushing myself.

    Some people will never get it. What I was suggesting wasn’t even that innovative, but it would have been innovative for the company. Without innovation we can never push forwards out of the mediocre box.

    Great post!

  26. Marian says:

    Beautifully written, and absolutely true. But the reverse can be true as well….there needs be a mixture of risk and certainty for innovative ideas to take root and grow. Excellent post! Thank you for sharing 🙂

  27. Dick Carlson says:

    I encounter this kind of thinking often, and have actually FALLEN for it twice in taking new positions. I call it “Make Everything Different Without Changing Anything”.

    I used to actually hate a couple of people who caused me to uproot my family and move them cross-country, for what I thought were amazing new jobs. Several months in, though, I found that they really didn’t want anything major to change in their company. THEY JUST WANTED THE PROBLEMS TO GO AWAY. They’d heard that I was a real problem solver, that I had great skills at making things happen, and that I could make the trains run on time.

    But at the end of the day, the owners of the businesses didn’t want to really operate differently. They didn’t want to chop off any deadwood, they didn’t want to change any suppliers, offer any new products, revise any existing processes or listen to their customers.

    THEY JUST WANTED THINGS TO GET BETTER.

    This was such a difficult lesson that it had to happen to me TWICE before I learned it. But I’m pretty hard to get through to.

  28. […] HERE is the blog post by Jonathan Fields about Lip Service that I discussed at top of the show. http://www.jonathanfields.com/blog/innovation-beyond-lip-service/ […]

  29. Mary-Ann Baldwin says:

    Everyone wants better, no one wants change. Couldn’t have said it better myself. A great life lesson here. Thanks for the post.

  30. PG says:

    After 7 years in government consulting attempting to change these organizations, I have concluded its not going to happen. At least not at the level I want to experience. I should come work for you! 🙂

  31. gina says:

    More people like you need to stand up to decision makers. If more people – at ALL LEVELS – spoke truthfully within organizations, we would have a dynamic, creative and flourishing economy instead of the destructive, fear-based and stagnant one we whine about.

  32. The most extraordinary part of this tale is your bravery, really. To see, and acknowledge, that you would not be happy, is something many potential employees lack. It’s the far-sighted vision of someone who doesn’t “need” a job.

  33. Goodness, I hope I didn’t use proper names in mentioning the project I am working on – oops… embarrassingly did not see the above comments before I authentically and enthusiastically responded to your beautiful post. Happy to edit if need be, or rewrite. I deeply respect your work Jonathan.

    All the best, Eliana

  34. We have 3 kids – They all had woobies 1)Cubby 2)Raggy and the real 3)Woobie (stuffed legless jester) – They needed them every second until – they didn’t. This is and you have given – good advice for grownups.

  35. Mike says:

    As a design engineer who always strove to innovate and come up with unconventional solutions, I was constantly battling with the stick-in-the muds. Needless to say, none of these outfits exist anymore!

  36. Excellent post as usual.

    This is such a common phenomenon. I had communications agency for many years and would propose inside out branding to clients – sometimes creative providers – to really proclaim and declare their unique voice. They always loved the concept but were so rarely willing to resource or stand behind it. I discovered that many of the CEOs and other senior level people viewed their work as doing battle against competitors (and often each other). Starting from this place of fear they were unwilling or unable to back themselves. I suggested they shift their perspective to see it as a game rather than a war; where you can win some and lose some and it can be fun to explore and discover without feeling you are risking life and limb. It is so heartening to witness real leadership and it rarely occurs without some failures. Apple is a great example. As they say you can’t reach new shores without leaving the harbour.

    I love your ‘Life’s too short to spend your days banging your head against someone else’s wall.’ I now design and produce a range of gemstone jewellery which is endeavouring to introduce the concept of circular giving and that there is enough for everyone by returning some of the proceeds to educate young girls in India.

    Where’s the fun without innovation and learning from our mistakes.

  37. David Wise says:

    Great post. Reminds me of a few years ago when I was actually already working for a business and saw an opportunity to implement an improvement program based on some previous experiences I’d had. The Managing Director was all for it – the only catch was I had to work on it outside of regular hours and not let it interfere with my work! Enough said.

  38. Innovation says:

    […] of which brings me to the idea of innovation.  Jonathan Fields wrote a brilliant post on the subject today.  To Jonathan (and me), innovation is about sawing off the limb of all that […]

  39. Wow, this story sounds eerily familiar. So familiar, in fact, that I’m tempted to insert the company’s name. Instead, I will take a moment of silence and give thanks that I am no longer working for that company…and have since moved on to bigger and better things. Amen!

  40. Stanley Lee says:

    Oh well. You can’t have it all. That is making change without taking on risks, no matter what the consequences are. Those who want free lunches are the most unlikely to make the changes they say they want.

  41. I sometimes wonder if people, like that CEO, who appear High Uncertainty Avoidant are really avoiding an uncertain future or, rather, avoiding more work.

    Complacency is just as powerful an innovation killer as fear.

    Great story, thanks for sharing!

  42. […] organization that professed to want innovation, but all was not as it seemed. You can check out his post here. The short version is that during the process of being interviewed for a senior (think C-suite, or […]

  43. Karina says:

    I think it takes a lot of guts to be able to do what you just did. Most people would try anyway, lured in by the possibility of a paycheck, prestige and the possibility of maybe, just maybe, convince the CEO to think more along your lines. But that really is a fantasy and what you did is a lot bolder than holding on to a slight possibility that it may be different.

    I will admit, I have fallen prey to such lures. Not of the bigger paycheck, prestige but of the comfort of being somewhere else other than my previous employment. The comfort of being somewhere else that’s safe. It’s hard for me to take the bold step forward into that uncertainty but I think it’s harder ’cause I don’t know exactly where I’m going and I have to compromise my efforts with my fiance. But then again, those may be excuses.

    I have come a long way from where I started but there is still so much that I need to learn. And I’m thinking I may need to reread your book afterall, just for good measure.

    Cheering you from the sidelines!

  44. Christen Jones says:

    This story shows a great example of leadership on your part. It’s amazing that people & companies get to a point where they let fear in so they stop making the choices that they originally made in order to become successful and get to where they currently are. Instead of continual innovation that causes growth, they hold back and take less risks. They think they are saving themselves, but really they are just holding themselves and the companies back from enormous growth.
    Way to be a great example Jonathan. Keep up the awesomeness!

  45. James says:

    Jonathan,

    I would have definitely done the same thing as you. At the end of the day it comes down to what YOU do. You’re their for true creativity, innovation, and change. If that’s not what they’re realllly doing, then it doesn’t fit. I’ve been in similar situations.

    I work in Higher Ed, (I work on LifeSketch on the side), and wherever I work I go by the theory of Figure out what works, figure out what doesn’t, Get rid of what doesn’t and add more of what does. Even if that’s creating from scratch.

    However, like you said, some places want all the change but none of the work. I now make it a rule of thumb to keep track of my initiatives when I work at places, since they know that’s the type of worker I am and what they hired me for. If within a certain period of time they don’t like any change or stop, I know it’s not a right fit and I’ve moved elsewhere. Most places have been great though – Thank Goodness!

    PS – Great story!

  46. Dana Leavy says:

    This completely brings to mind the idea of carefully choosing who you work with as a business. Early on, I know I was tempted to work with just about anyone willing to pay me. But you quickly learn how that excitement gets deflated when suddenly you find yourself working with a nightmare client who not only doesn’t want to take your expert advice seriously, but thinks they know better and just wants you to be a catalyst for their creative vision. Unfortunately, I think we all experience that at some point… and learn from it. Great points, thx!

  47. […] organization that professed to want innovation, but all was not as it seemed. You can check out his post here. The short version is that during the process of being interviewed for a senior (think C-suite, or […]

  48. Great post Jonathan. This really struck a chord.

  49. Larry Moody says:

    This post is timely indeed. I have been tasked with improving a certain process and I was completely prepared to suggest brand new software and significant changes to some existing software on Monday when the VP is in town. But now I understand that the red flags I’ve been seeing may be much more relevant and a full-on re-write may not be the best strategy. Hmmmm… what to do…

  50. SandraR says:

    Life’s too short to spend your days banging your head against someone else’s wall.

    I’m Sharing that one for aure Jonathan… Thanks for keeping it real :))

    BTW LOVE the book!
    Sandra