More Culture Than Shock

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I’m not a good alone person. As a result, I am passionate about sharing my experiences, whether that be watching a good movie, eating a delicious meal, or traveling. These are things I enjoy doing with friends and loved ones. When I do such things alone, the experiences hold less meaning for me unless and until I can find a way to share them. This is in part why I have befriended social media and why I have embraced blogging for years.

I have had the good fortune to visit Baja California in Mexico a couple of times in the last two years. I was there on business both times but what I want to share with you here are some of the experiences I had while I wasn’t conducting business. I want to tell you about some of the cool places I visited and the wonderful people I encountered. Making these visits has changed the way I look at Mexico and sharing this with you makes it all more meaningful to me.

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My travel companions and I crossed the border from San Diego into Tijuana and vice versa. Before taking the first of these trips, my only experience with Mexico had been a brief excursion into Tijuana in 1975. I was 14 years old at the time and a San Diego bus tour that I was on took us across the border for a couple of hours. The bus tour had been pretty awesome but I didn’t think much of Mexico based on what I had seen. At the time, unemployment in Mexico was around 30%. To put that into perspective, 10% has long been considered the threshold for an economic depression. So there I was, a sheltered, white bread, chicken shit, suburban boy witnessing real poverty for the first time. I saw small children as well as extremely old people begging in the streets — and largely being ignored by passers-by as if they didn’t even exist. That bothered me greatly in 1975. It still bothers me today.

We weren’t ever in Tijuana long but I did see more of the city than I had in 1974. Yes, I did encounter a few beggars but very few. In fact, I regularly see more widespread begging in Chicago than I saw there. Once out of the city, I was at once impressed by the vast surrounding terrain, which can best be described as rugged. Very hilly, almost mountainous, with lots of immense boulders everywhere. And since we were still near the border, there was the ever-present steel barrier, none of which looked new. In fact, everybody seemed oblivious to it. In the city, we drove right alongside it at times. Out in the country, I could see the barrier off in the distance from the highway we were on. Many people from both sides cross the border between Mexico and California daily, many of them commuting to and from work, from both sides. I saw nothing sensational about it.

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What I did find sensational, in Tijuana and elsewhere, was the fantastic food being served up by local street vendors. A few of my associates, those who visit Mexico with some regularity, seem to know which vendors offer the best fare. I was never disappointed. In fact, I was usually blown away by the fresh ingredients and awesome flavors these vendors serve up. One cannot overlook the value, either. We often ate like kings for the equivalent of relatively few American dollars.

One day I was riding along with the eldest of my company’s founders, the only one who was born in Mexico, and I learned a lot about him, the area we were traveling through, and the people who live there. “Today you are seeing real Mexico,” Ruben told me, “not what the tourists see.” He pointed to some people selling goods at one intersection and to others who were performing at another. At one point the company elder asked, “Do you see anybody begging?”

“No,” I replied. “I see people selling things. I see people performing on some corners.”

“People do what they can to make a little money. They don’t need much. They aren’t rich, but everybody seems happy.” I nodded in acknowledgment.

We talked about our respective heritages for a while. After a momentary hesitation, Ruben asked me a question that made me pause: “Do you… I don’t know… Do you mind working for Mexicans?”

I smiled at the question and gave the most honest answer I could. “No. Do you mind having an Italian working for your company?” We looked at each other and laughed out loud. It was genuine laughter and that made me feel good.

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Here is something else I hadn’t known before I started making these trips: Baja California is home to Mexico’s wine country. In all candor, I hadn’t even known Mexico has a wine country. Well, they do and some of their wines are quite excellent. If you’re interested in such things, google “Ruta del Vino, Baja California.” We drove part of Ruta del Vino, flanked on both sides by vineyards and olive groves, to visit a wonderful little winery called Cava Mora. I was positively enchanted from the moment I set foot on the property.

As I understand it, Señor Mora was born in Mexico but spent a great deal of his life living in California and for a while was a competitive surfer. The man speaks fluent Spanish but when he spoke to me, in perfect English, I could hear Southern California in his voice. His wines are exquisite red blends, quite full-bodied with a delightful nose and deep flavor. During our last visit, after tasting wine in the cave, we went to the sipping room up above and enjoyed a bottle of wine along with a plate of cheeses, bread, olives, and spreads. There was music playing in the background and the sun was shining outside. I’m telling you, a man could get used to a place like that.

I would be remiss if I didn’t talk a little bit about the people I’ve met and hung out with during our visits, some of whom originate from the same part of Mexico as the elder of whom I spoke earlier. They are a genuinely welcoming sort. Some speak perfect English, others speak it more like my Italian parents did. A few spoke little English at all, yet we communicated effortlessly. And at some point during each visit, there was a feast featuring way too much food, ample drink, music, laughter, and a certain closeness that mere words cannot quite capture.

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During such a feast, I was also introduced to a locally distilled spirit called mezcal. Like its distant cousin tequila, mezcal is made from agave but with far fewer geographic and botanical restrictions. My first taste of mezcal was poured from a recycled 2-liter soda bottle. That’s right, moonshine. The flavor was intense, to say nothing of the burn that followed. As I finished my double shot, one of the women uttered a remark from the kitchen that caused everybody to erupt in laughter. Turning to my mentor, I asked, “What did the woman say?”

“She said, ‘If you drink enough of this, you won’t need any blankets tonight.'” I looked at him and smiled as I finished my drink. He added, “By the way, you’re impressing the hell out of these people right now.”

In the end, there is always much hugging and well-wishing when the time comes to say goodbye and none of this is shallow courtesy. After only two visits, I get it. We are genuinely glad to see one another. We are genuinely sorry to say goodbye so soon. And we genuinely look forward to seeing each other again. To understand that dynamic is to get a glimpse of the organizational culture in which I work every day.

I am not a good alone person. That’s why if you have read all of this and looked at the photos and video clips along the way, I’m grateful. It all means more to me because you came along, at least for this little bit. Thanks for hanging with me.

Chili Tonight: My Influences and Options

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From the moment I began teasing my Facebook friends with photos about the pot of chili I was making, inquiries and recipe requests began flowing in. And while I do boast about having certain secret ingredients in my various dishes, truth be told, I’m not all that secretive. There was only one problem: I seldom do recipes and my signature chili is definitely no exception. But I did promise a few people that I would write this article — to give them my non-recipe if you will — and I am a man of my word. So here goes.

For openers, let’s talk about the main ingredient in most chili recipes: the meat. Most chilis I have eaten, some of them extremely good, were made with finely ground meat. There’s nothing wrong with that. Heck, my own mother used hamburger meat (usually ground round) to make her chili. I used to do likewise until I discovered alternative methods. Some years ago, I was in downtown Indianapolis for a conference. A handful of associates and I decided to visit a chili bar for supper one night. We were doing sampler trays and at some point, I realized that the chili I was eating had not been made from hamburger but from finely chopped solid meat. This epiphany forever changed the way I make my chili.

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My go-to meats are steak and lean pork, which I usually dice by hand. This takes time but the results are great. Now stop a moment and think about the sheer number of alternatives that can be found in that one sentence alone. Do I have to use beef and pork? Heck no. You can use any number of meats, alone or in combination. I have done many chilis using only beef. I have eaten very good chilis made using only chicken, only pork, and in one case, no meat at all. My friend Ann and I once made a phenomenal chili using lean pork and chicken thighs. I have friends who make venison chili and one who has even used squirrel meat. I’ve not tasted either, nor do I judge, but these variations further serve to illustrate the sheer depth and breadth of possibilities.

You don’t necessarily have to cut the meat by hand, either, although that method will give you the greatest amount of control over the size and shape of your cut pieces. Do you have a food processor? I have had good results using my ancient La Machine food processor to do my coarse chopping. You just have to be careful not to end up with puréed meat. A meat grinder with a coarse grind option will also work nicely. That’s what Ann and I used when we made our pork and chicken chili.

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At this point, I am ready to season and brown my meat. While preheating my pan, I will season my meat while it is still in a bowl or spread out on my cutting board. Here is where I apply kosher salt, coarse-ground black pepper, cayenne pepper (coarse or fine, your choice), and a favorite meat seasoning or rub — which in my case is Mike’s All Purpose Seasoning. No, I am not the Mike who developed this line of seasoning products, but I did meet him once.

If I have concerns about grease, I may opt to brown my meat in a skillet and then transfer it, sans all the extra grease, to my chili pot. I typically use lean cuts of meat, though, in which case I’ll prepare the whole gig in one pot. I start with a hot pan, add a little peanut oil (prized for its high smoking point), and brown the meat over high heat so as to burn off all the water that will come from the meat as it cooks.

As the last of that water cooks off, I’ll add some finely chopped peppers and a generous portion of minced garlic. My wife cannot tolerate heat, so I use red bell pepper plus a few serrano peppers — in proportions that add more flavor than heat. When the weather allows, I may opt to roast the peppers outside, even adding a little wood smoke for added flavor.

Just as the meat begins to fry, i.e. as the edges begin to turn dark brown, I’ll lower the heat and add liquid. Here also is where you’ll add the rest of your chili seasonings, namely chili powder, cumin, and oregano — Mexican oregano if you have it. The proper ratio of chili powder to cumin is three-to-one. The oregano is added to taste. If I add three tablespoons of chili powder and one of cumin, I might toss in a teaspoon, less than two, of the oregano. You can always adjust later on. Stir it up to coat all the meat evenly as you begin to lower the heat.

Here come some more variables, each of them worthy. Sometimes I’ll simmer the meat in beer. During a recent trip to Mexico, I discovered a wonderful brew. Bohemia Oscura is a Vienna style beer with excellent flavor that would work very well for this purpose. Not a fan of beer? During a trip to Colorado, I met a lady at a winery who talked about simmering her chili meat in that winery’s medium-dry sherry. And so now, as often as not, I’ll simmer my beef and pork in a generous pour of amontillado.

The rest of my liquid generally comes in the form of stock — beef stock if I’m using beef, chicken stock if I’m using poultry, and vegetable stock if I were to ever make a vegetarian chili. Not all chilis incorporate tomato; that’s a very regional thing. Being from southern Italy, my mother put tomatoes in everything. Even the broth in her chicken soup was red. Being my mother’s son, I follow suit and use diced tomatoes, crushed tomatoes, or both in my chili. It’s not the dominant ingredient but its presence cannot be ignored. All the while, my chili continues to simmer.

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Next, I add my beans and any other extras that are involved. Beans themselves are controversial, as some purists insist that they have no place in chili. Here again I defer to my chili influences, one being my mother and the other being a small chain of chili parlors in Milwaukee, where I went to college. My mom cooked the beans in her chili. The chili parlor, called Real Chili, served their chili over beans as an option. They also offered their chili over spaghetti and beans as another option, which I loved, but I’m getting ahead of myself.

What kind of beans? What do you got? Pinto beans are common, as are kidney beans, both light and dark. I’ve used them all. How about a combination? Each contributes its own color, texture, and flavor to the dish. That chicken and pork chili that Ann and I made included a medley of organic beans and it proved to be wonderful. I often add corn to my steak and pork chili. For the pork and chicken chili I’ve mentioned, we added hominy. You don’t need to add anything unless you want to.

Whatever bean(s) and extras you use, let the chili simmer for a while. How long depends on who you ask, but this simmering time allows the flavors to meld and the broth to reduce and thicken. As this happens, you taste and adjust the seasonings as you see fit. Bear in mind, as the liquid reduces, the seasoning flavors will become more concentrated. Don’t rush to add more salt early on. Need more heat? Add cayenne pepper or hot sauce (I may toss in a pour of Valentina or Tabasco at this point, depending on my needs). At this point, it becomes largely a matter of personal preference.

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Once the chili reaches its desired state of doneness, as indicated by the thickness of the broth and satisfaction of the cook with its flavors, it’s time to put out the foundations, condiments, and sides. My mother never made chili mac, but influenced by the Real Chili parlors in Milwaukee, I have always served my chili on a bed of broken spaghetti. My condiments include shredded cheddar cheese, chopped fresh onion, oyster crackers, sour cream, and hot sauce. My favorite side is cornbread.

If you were expecting a more concise recipe, I hope you aren’t too disappointed. I have been making chili for a few decades now. Some have been better than others and in all candor, my results have become more consistent over time. I have reached a point now where even if I vary the base ingredients, i.e. the meat and bean choices, the end quality remains fairly consistent.

If you use any of the guidelines I’ve presented here, please let me know how your results turn out. And as always, thank you for hanging with me.

Fruition

 

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Over the course of the last three-plus decades, I have amassed a great deal of knowledge and experience working with rapidly growing, closely-held companies. I have spent the last two of those decades learning my way around a small cluster of related industries that fall into a category described as professional grounds management.  That’s not exactly how I saw my career playing out when I graduated from college in 1983 but that’s indeed how it has played out. Helping smaller companies become (and behave like) bigger ones, that’s what I do.

During all that time, I have worked for a couple, literally two, excellent leaders and a greater number of less-than-ideal bosses who were definitely not leaders. In two organizations for which I have worked, I was repeatedly given the privilege of teaching new hires, people who had been acquired at several times my salary, how to be my boss. In at least two instances in my career, I was “let go” by otherwise competent individuals holding formal authority but having no clue what they were letting slip through their fingers.

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Believe it or not, this sort of repeated pattern can get to a person after a while. And believe it or not, that’s the fault of the person, not their environment. You heard me. If over a period of time I had become convinced by those around me that I wasn’t executive material, that I wasn’t destined for success, or for wealth, that somehow I just wasn’t good enough, it was my fault for believing such a crock of shit. Other people, however greedy, cruel, or incompetent they may be, cannot get to you without your permission.

The good news? A mind can be changed and with it, one’s world also changes.

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The founders of Diaz Group LLC and I have been business acquaintances for the last ten years. During my tenure at Cherry Logistics, a third-party facilities repair and maintenance company, we transacted a great deal of business together that grew substantially year after year. Unfortunately, Cherry closed its doors in 2017 (see Ups and Downs – Part 2 of 3). In a fit of bad judgment, following nearly two decades in the facilities maintenance, snow and ice management, and green industries, I pursued and accepted a position with — promise not to laugh — a minor player in the Chicagoland retail grocery arena. To say that marriage was destined to be short-lived would be an understatement. After a four-month honeymoon period, punctuated by a severe shoulder injury, we parted ways (see Closures: My Summer Interrupted, Part III).

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A month or so later, aside from some ongoing freelance writing work, I was still contemplating my next big opportunity when I got an interesting text message from a fellow Cherry alumnus asking whether I would be interested in meeting with Rafael and Ruben Diaz, two of the three original founders of Diaz Group. “I love those guys,” I replied. “When I handled Special Services, these were the people who could get stuff done before the others would even get out and quote it.” But I also expressed concern about the commute, 35 miles from my home to their office, which was then in the Back of the Yards neighborhood on Chicago’s south side.

In the end, both parties agreed to meet and our go-between Tony made the arrangements and then removed himself from whatever would transpire next. My first meeting with Rafael, Ruben, and a third character named Gil, who would eventually become the best mentor I’ve ever had, lasted every bit of two hours. Our second meeting lasted just as long and concluded with me accepting the only position they could offer at the time, Contract Manager. I jokingly told my family and friends that henceforth, my middle initial stood for “Gringo” but in reality I was joining a very diverse group of people. Less than a week later, on November 19, 2018, I was part of Diaz Group.

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The office on 51st Place was humble but also very homey on the inside. My not-quite-a-cubicle was equally humble. But no matter, I was made to feel not only welcome but very much a part of the family. When the executives arrived, they made a point to greet me and shake my hand, as did every manager, as did many field workers, some of whom spoke only rudimentary English. Such is the culture of Diaz Group and it suits me well.

The company’s leaders went out of their way to expand and enrich my role in the organization. They included me in meetings that were well-suited to my abilities even if the subject matter was utterly unrelated to my formal title. My mentor and I have had regular one-on-one conversations during which we discuss my future as well as that of the company, all while helping each other grow. Over time, Gil taught me how to recognize and replace my negative self-talk, to see more of my potential, and to eliminate my self-imposed limits.

My mentor also talked about an end-of-day process he calls “decompressing,” during which he reviews the events of the day and asks himself what went well, what did not, what could he have done better, etc. By doing this, he goes to bed already having thought everything through and this allows him not only to sleep better but to also be well-prepared for the following day. For years, I had done a shallower version of this without having realized it. I have a friend who used to chat with me most evenings and would ask me questions about my day. By answering her questions, I was in effect reviewing what went well, what hadn’t, and so on. We never thought of it as an element of personal and professional development but in hindsight, it was all that and more. Just like my mentor, at times she believed in me more than I believed in myself. I asked similar questions in return, though my friend never considered her workday to be as interesting as mine. That’s an illusion, of course. Another person’s work often seems more interesting than your own, especially if you care about that person, but the other person holds the same illusion in reverse. In any case, having already been conditioned to the process, I soon adopted my own method of “decompressing” at night. It works.

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Before long I had a little office of my own, with a much bigger desk, a nice chair, and a dry erase wall on which I chose to display concepts to be shared with others. Though my title had not changed, my role had been evolving since day one, exactly as we had intended. My beginning title and salary were a factor of what was possible for our company at the moment, not of what was (and is) possible. Bear in mind, however successful this company has been over the course of their first dozen years, this was no big corporation. And that suited me fine, given that my entire career had been devoted to making smaller, privately held companies become larger, privately held companies at an accelerated pace. I was in my industry, I was in my organizational category, I was in my element — and baby, it showed.

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In October of 2019, Diaz Group opened a new office in Elmhurst, Illinois and my job was moved to this location. Almost exactly the same number of miles from my home, the new office proved to be nearly half as far in terms of travel time. Then in November, as a precursor to what was to come, I was moved into the corner office, which I now share with my friend Rafael Diaz, the company’s president. All the while, I continued to develop personally and professionally. My contributions grew, as did my workload.

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On December 23, 2019, I was promoted to the newly created role of Executive Strategist. I was very excited because although I’d held what were essentially leadership roles for decades, this was the first that came with an executive title. Still, this promotion was not a surprise. Quite the contrary, it had been almost a year in the making. I helped write the position description, along with my boss/mentor and the head of Human Resources, with input from Rafael.

In essence, I assist the rest of my executive team with developing, communicating, executing, and sustaining corporate strategic initiatives. I communicate and implement the company’s strategy so that all stakeholders understand the company-wide strategic plan and how it carries out the company’s overall goals. In plain English, I spend my days working on moving the organization from what it is today to what it will be in the future. For me, this is the most fulfilling role I have ever undertaken. And so for the moment, I am exactly where I want to be.

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Jesus Nevarez, Gil Resendiz, Rafael Diaz, and Michael D’Aversa

Maya Angelou is credited with having said, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” As a professional communicator and leader, I strive to make people feel good about themselves and about this company. Indeed, it’s not much different from what I have long striven to do in my personal life. Such is the legacy I’m aiming for. The next few years should be interesting for all involved.

Thanks for hanging with me.