Watch the borders

My new number, some FBI stories, the art of saying nothing, and 7 other things worth your time.

Before we start today, I have a new phone number!

It’s (718) 866-1753.

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Corned beef

OK, Here are my two favorite, apocryphal, old-school FBI stories. (Doesn’t everyone have at least one?) A lot of this comes from when I was working on a screenplay about the bureau that took place in the 1950s.

Story #1: A new FBI agent starts work in New York City, and some other agents tell him that the owner of a nearby deli loves cops, and always makes their sandwiches a bit better.

So, the agent orders a Reuben, and flashes his badge—but, the guy making the sandwich looks as if he has no idea why the agent would do that.

“FBI,” the agent explains urgently. “More corned beef.”

Story #2: This one has to do with J. Edgar Hoover, who was FBI director for nearly 50 years, and one of the most powerful and feared people in America as a result. During the late 1960s, an agent wrote a memo for the director about an investigation—but Hoover returned it with only one note scrawled on it: “Watch the borders!”

What the heck did this mean? Nobody knew, and they were afraid to ask. The memo itself had nothing to do with international borders. Still, the FBI linked up with the customs service, and sent extra agents to the borders with Canada and Mexico.

Only later did someone figure out that Hoover’s message was actually about his pet peeve: agents who wrote memos with really narrow margins (“borders”) on their typewriters.


Priorities

From Reuben sandwiches, to Hoover, to the ultimate example of today’s newsletter: Doug Parker, the CEO of American Airlines (last seen in this space when he was reading the book, White Fragility on a Southwest Airlines flight).

Just before the pandemic hit, Parker did an interview in which he gave a timeless insight, explaining what it’s like for him, as the CEO, to travel on American.

Parker: I'm trying to see what customers are seeing. I'm looking for choke points. I'm seeing where lines are forming and where processes aren't moving, and I want to know why. ...

Interviewer: If you notice something amiss in a process American can control, do you bring it up?

Parker: I do, but I can't think of a time when the answer wasn't, “Oh, yes, we're working on it.” ... Any CEO will tell you that you may see things and question them, but you have to be very careful doing anything about it.

Interviewer: Why?

Parker: You don't want to change the priority of something that wasn't a priority. You want to be careful not to have people drop what they are doing so they can take care of something you noticed.

Especially in a large organization (American Airlines had 133,700 employees at the start of the summer, although they’re shedding workers now), a leader's most powerful tool is the ability to create culture.

Reacting in real time to minor problems can mean unintentionally upending that culture. As Parker points out, you don't want to “change the priority” by mistake.

If you tell your people to expect special treatment, they’ll expect special treatment. If you run a business and tell your workers that you care about an esoteric point like the width of the margins on their memos, they’ll pay attention to the margins.

Oh, another interesting point. Parker was asked how employees react when they see his name on the flight manifest.

Answer: they usually don't.

That's because while he's known as Doug Parker, Doug is actually his middle name. His reservations and tickets have to match his driver’s license, so they always read, "William Parker.”

All the better, for a CEO who doesn't want to upend his company's priorities.

And, pretty much the opposite of flashing your badge for a little more corned beef.

7 other things worth your time

  • Hurricane Laura is now a massive storm, and it will probably have hit the coast near the border of Texas and Louisiana with an “unsurvivable” storm surge by the time you read this. Thousands had evacuated. (Weather.com)

  • The NBA’s Milwaukee Bucks boycotted a playoff game Wednesday in protest of the shooting of Jacob Blake, sparking a chain of events in which the NBA eventually postponed all its games, and several baseball teams, including the Milwaukee Brewers, decided not to play, either. (CBS Sports, Deadline)

  • A 17-year-old Illinois teenager has been charged with first degree murder after he allegedly shot three protesters in Kenosha, killing two of them. (Yahoo News)

  • The FBI says it has no evidence of any coordinated fraud schemes related to voting by mail this year, putting the bureau in direct conflict with President Trump. (But: nothing about corned beef or margins). (NPR)

  • The New Zealand mosque attack terrorist was sentenced to life without parole—the first convict in the country ever to face that sentence. (RNZ)

  • Statistic: Amazon now delivers two-thirds of its packages itself. (Business Insider)

  • A U.S. Coast Guard sharpshooter had to open fire on a shark that was threatening his shipmates during a recreational swim from their cutter. Safely secured: all the Coasties, plus the “massive inflatable unicorn” they had in the water with them. (Military.com)

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