Reflections on Potomac’s First 18 Years

Potomac turns 18 today. For Jewish people like me, the number 18 has special meaning. It stands for “life.” As Tevya sings in Fiddler on the Roof, Jews say “L’chaim!” which generally translated means, “to life.”

About Hebrew numerals

When I was in second grade, we learned Roman numerals in school, which was important if you wanted to read Super Bowl logos. My local team, the defending champion (at the time named) Washington Redskins, got crushed in Super Bowl XVIII to the hated (at the time) Los Angeles Raiders. All of us in the DC-area knew XVIII meant 18.

Ancient Hebrews also used letters to represent numbers. Each of the letters in the 22-character Hebrew alphabet represented a unique number. Rather than using five characters to represent 18, you only needed two.

The word chai (life) is made up of two letters: ח ( “chet” with a “kh” sound as in the guttural German pronunciation of “Bach”) is the 8th letter of the alphabet so = 8. And The letter י (pronounced “yood” like yellow) is the 10th letter of the alphabet so = 10. These two letters form the word chai and add up to 18.  This is why the number 18 is associated with life.

Depiction of the word chai, meaning Life (singular)
Table of Hebrew Numbers

L’Chaim – To Life and For Lives

While L’chaim generally means “To Life,” the “L-” sound up front is translated as both “to” and “for” in English. The word chaim is the plural of chai, so is more accurate as “lives,” not just one life. Put together, “For lives” is just as accurate as “to life.”

Some have claimed that l’chaim “expresses the idea that no one can live life alone. We all need someone else. There’s no point in toasting to life alone.” It’s not about one life – it’s for lives.

Reflecting on my life and Potomac’s lives

For the last 18 years, I have had a hard time separating my life from Potomac. I’ve admitted to my team on many occasions that I often take criticisms of Potomac as personal criticisms. When something goes wrong, I wonder what I could have done differently to have prevented it. On the external side (especially in the early years of the company) we worked hard to brand Potomac as being unique from “Jon’s company.” But personally, I felt like there was little separation between Jon’s life and Potomac’s life. It seemed like one life.   

But there is no point in toasting to life alone. We all need someone else. And to get to 18 years, I’ve had the benefit of working with many, many hard-working and dedicated people. We’ve had and currently have an incredible team. 

I am truly grateful for the more than 100 people who have worked for the company, whether as employees, independent contractors, or our third-party support partners. I am proud of the relationships built over the last 18 years. I have danced at our employees’ weddings, met their new babies, and wished others well as they left us for business school or other pursuits.  In several cases that included becoming our future clients.

I am especially appreciative of our senior team, who have worked tirelessly to embed our values of integrity, accountability, professionalism, and discretion into all that we do. Many of our team members have been with the company for more than 10 years. We would not be the company that we are today without their unwavering dedication.

The picture on the left below is from 2016 and of the 11 people pictured (besides me), 6 are still current team members—from left: Carla-Marie Ulerie, Adam Oakley, Meredith Swartz, Michael Young, Dan Koerner, and Graham Rich. I’m proud of that longevity.

Left: 2016 Fishing Trip with 7 current Potomac Team Members
Right: 2023 Team Picture (missing 5 current team members)

Reflecting on our clients’ lives

We’ve had the privilege of working with over 150 companies and thousands of people.  Over time, I’ve watched as our client leads have gained promotions and changed roles, taken on wider responsibilities, or in some cases, opted to downshift and/or retire.   

Over 18 years, you get to know some of the people at those clients very well.  We work hard to become an extension of our clients’ teams and, in some cases, like our co-workers, our clients become our friends.  I’ve heard stories about weddings and divorces, babies being born and kids going off to college, exciting vacations to far-away places, and debacle home renovations.  This past month, one of my earlier and most fun-loving clients passed away relatively suddenly. That one touched a nerve – wasn’t prepared to add funerals to this list.  

18 = Becoming an Adult

About 10 years ago, a client described her company as a “gangly teenager” that was going through the awkward phase that many teenagers do. I hadn’t really thought about companies maturing in a similar way to humans but the more I thought about it, the more I realized it was true:

Via Shutterstock – 1264493617

And now, we’re 18 and Potomac is supposed to be an adult. In some ways, I feel like I’ve been preparing for this day for a while, getting my child Potomac ready to go off to college. Especially over the last year, when we’ve pursued a project appropriately named Operation Evolution. Part of its focus is to make the business less dependent on me. This included changing my role to allow the company the space it needs to grow and mature. And give me time to write these types of articles. 😊

Meanwhile, our senior team has stepped up and taken on additional responsibilities –ranging from Finance to HR to Business Development. The transition has been hard at times, but we are evolving and making progress.

Evolution is necessary to sustain life (and business). There will be more change to come as we work through new structures, processes, and approaches to remain a sustainable, long-term business.  We are committed to maintaining the level of excellence and teamwork that has marked the first 18 years of our life.

I personally look forward to also evolving my role back to where it started. Completing the circle of life, if you will.  In the months ahead, I am hoping to spend more time working directly with our clients.  I love wrestling through their most complicated issues, working together to make our industry more ethical.  And ultimately safer for the lives of patients.

In closing, I pledge to continue to work to make a difference in the lives of our team members and our clients. We will continue to be a great company that people want to work for and work with for the foreseeable future.

L’chaim. For lives.

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As a follow-up to my prior post on goals, I wanted to take a step back and focus on how to achieve your goals. The key is to have a plan. It sounds simple and obvious, yet it’s so often overlooked. As Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, author of The Little Prince once said, “a goal without a plan is just a wish.”

Why bother?

To most, planning is about as exciting as paying your taxes.  Which reminds me of one of my all-time favorite Homer Simpson scenes, as quoted at left (see longer clip here).  

In the clip, while Krusty is waiting in line to mail his taxes, he is asked why he waited until the last minute.  He responds, “because I’m an idiot.” 

We’ve all been that idiot – and always say “next time, I’ll plan ahead.”

The Simpsons (Season 9, Episode 20)

The ROI on Planning

Dale Carnegie once said, “An hour of planning can save you 10 hours of doing.”  I personally think Carnegie undersold it.  He only focused on you – i.e., the person doing the planning.  But most projects involve other people, often very large teams.  That hour of planning can easily save 10 hours per person Which makes the potential return on investment of planning exponential. 

How to get started

At Potomac, we teach a project management framework called Think-Plan-Do for project management.  It’s important to note: the thinking needs to come first. Understand your goals, objectives, and what you want to accomplish. Have a clear vision about what the end looks like. 

But the critical part for moving from vision to reality is the plan.  How will you achieve your objectives? What steps do you need to take? Who else should be involved?  

 Five tips that can help you be a better planner

1. Fit-for-purpose

Not all plans should be the same. I think this is one of the major areas where people struggle. To get your plan “just right,” you need to match the energy you put into developing the plan to the magnitude of the task. Planning can be as basic as jotting down the roles and responsibilities and needed steps.

When I decided I wanted to write more, I made a list of a few ideas for topics. Similarly, when I start writing, I draft a basic outline and some key themes/quotes that I want to cover. It’s a quick plan and easy to implement. 

2. Avoid over planning

AI Generated using Leonardo
AI Generated using Leonardo

There are a handful of people who can take a small project and turn it into the moon landing. They map out detailed RACI grids and build out Gantt charts showing every step. They involve a multitude of stakeholders wanting to please everyone (or alternatively out of fear of excluding someone).

These plans overwhelm teams with specifics and often lack practicality—such as needing to gain consensus from a very large team or trying to meet best-case timelines. Any change to the plan creates tremendous work. Eventually, the maintenance of the plans becomes as time-consuming as accomplishing the task itself. Paradoxically, nothing gets done. 

3. Take the time to aim

ShirtWoot! Ready. Fire. Aim. by Patrickspens
ShirtWoot! Ready. Fire. Aim. by Patrickspens

More common than the over-planner is the under-planner.

We’ve all seen the busy executive whose actions are best described as “Ready-Fire-Aim.”  They trade thoughtfulness and deliberation for decisiveness.  While there are many books and consultants espousing this belief, I believe this scattershot approach often leads to focusing on the wrong priorities; going through process steps out of order; and ultimately, increased error, cost, and overall frustration.  

Don’t compound the problem by mimicking the behavior. 

4. Balance Supply and Demand

As an economics major in undergrad, I slip into econ-speak from time to time.  And while my use of economic vocabulary frequently elicits eyerolls from my family (not to mention my friends, clients, co-workers…), please allow a small pseudo-economic digression.  

When people think about goals, I like to think of those as the demand side. They are focused on outcomes – what do you want to get/achieve? 

But too many people neglect the “supply side.” This is how your objective will be achieved.   What are the internal resources, budget, and amount of time available to accomplish the task?

The key to a good plan is to evaluate whether it’s achievable given the allocated resources. And if it’s not, update the plan until it feels doable.  

5. Be flexible

Punch-Out!! by Nintendo
Punch-Out!! by Nintendo

Mike Tyson famously said, “everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.” While the thought of getting hit in the mouth by a 1980s era Mike Tyson seems scary as hell, his opponents were, after all, professional boxers. They should have included getting punched in the mouth as part of their plan.  

I try and keep the Tyson quote top of mind. The more critical the objective and for any longer-term plan, it’s best to expect to be punched in the mouth. Stuff will go wrong, priorities will change, there will be employee turnover, reorganization of the business, etc. You never know what it will be, but it’s best to give yourself some cushion. And then be flexible to adjust as inevitable obstacles come up.

Conclusion

If you liked this piece, please check out our new “Currents” section of the Potomac website. If you have feedback on this topic (or others), please reach out to me on LinkedIn or via email at jwilkenfeld@potomacriverpartners.com.

Compliance Corner

My intention in writing these pieces is to connect with my network — many of whom are life science compliance professionals — while also trying to apply some general business lessons from running Potomac to those who are not. Where relevant, I’ll add a separate “Compliance Corner” to these pieces where I will cover topics specific to Compliance professionals that aren’t relevant to others.

At Potomac, we’re often asked to advise Compliance teams on how to develop their plan — or as we like to call it, their Compliance Roadmap. Ideally, the plan should start with a risk assessment.

Shameless plug alert – I will be leading a workshop on this at PCC 2024 with David Ryan of Ardelyx. 

The results of the risk assessment should inform which areas need enhancements in the controls (i.e., enhanced policies, training, communication) and which need validation of whether the controls are working appropriately (i.e., auditing and monitoring).  

The overall Compliance Plan can then be broken down in more detail in its three primary offshoots:  Documentation, Training & Communication, and Auditing & Monitoring.

Compliance Corner

This methodical approach provides a solid foundation for achieving an effective compliance program. The result is a clear roadmap with actions to complete each quarter. This helps dramatically reduce stress within employee teams and has the added benefit of reducing cost as you avoid fire drill pricing and staffing from your partners.

To achieve your compliance goals, make sure your plans are fit-for purpose, balance supply and demand, and have enough built-in flexibility, just in case you get punched in the mouth.

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I failed to achieve one of my “SMART” objectives for 2023. Yet, I still fulfilled my intended goals.
The difference lies in the meaning of “goals” and “objectives” and the importance of articulating what you want to happen, as opposed to getting caught up in the measurement.

Image credit: Jennifer Burk on Unsplash

As we reach the new year, many people and companies right now are thinking about New Year’s resolutions and their overall goals. Many experts will talk about how goals need to be SMART. This is based on a framework initially developed by George Doran in an article in Management Review in 1981:

I read the original Doran article for the first time this past week. While I’ve heard the term “SMART goals” for years, Doran used the term “SMART” to define corporate “objectives.” Without knowledge of the original Doran terminology, that is the term we’ve used at Potomac as well. We encourage Potomac employees to identify their goals and think about the best path forward to achieving them using a
framework that looks something like this:

My personal example:

Early last year, coming off shoulder surgery, I was concerned about its impact on my health. I knew many of my preferred exercise activities were now off-limits, including cancelling a planned ski trip with friends.
I wanted to ensure I stayed in shape, so I decided I wanted to walk more. I’d also been reading about the mental (and physical) health benefits of being outdoors for some portion of the day. I decided I wanted to spend more time outside. Lastly, since I often sit at a screen for much of the day, I thought that quiet time by myself would be beneficial for me and Potomac.

Goals

I started 2023 by walking my neighborhood before work. I didn’t do it every day, but most. I’d also try and go for a longer walk/run on weekends. After a couple of months, I looked at my iPhone’s Health app and saw I was averaging 3,000 more steps than 2022. Being a math geek, I realized that would be more than 1,000,000 steps over the course of the year. I thought that would be really cool! 1 million more of anything sounded like a huge accomplishment.

I did some more math and to get to 1,000,000 more steps, I needed to average 2,740 more steps per day.
I felt that was hard, but achievable and led to my SMART objective:

Objective SMART Objective
I am going to regularly walk my neighborhood on days with no commute I will walk 1,000,000 more steps in 2023 than 2022 (as measured by my phone).

The Result:

The 3,000+ pace was tough to maintain. During the summer, I found it harder to keep up my walking habit, especially on weekends. By autumn, the average was down to 2,500 steps so I figured out how much I’d need to increase my walking to get to the 2,740 per day pace. I tried – but had a hard time increasing activity to the needed pace and remained flat throughout the Fall. By the end of October, I knew I was going to fall short.

As the year approached the finish line, with my shoulder now fully healed, our family went on a ski trip. I managed to ski 6 days and got the most exercise of any week I had the whole year! And all of it was spent outdoors.

Yet, my phone (correctly) didn’t count any of my skiing as “steps.” By December 27, I was down to 2,445 more steps per day than 2022, the lowest it had been all year. Multiply that by 365 and you get 892,425 more steps. I had failed to hit the 1 million step objective by more than 10%.

The Result, Part 2:

I am “goal-oriented” and don’t like missing objectives. It would be easy for me to dwell on being 100,000 steps short of my objective. But I was able to flip my mindset and focus on the original goals: I had exercised more, spent a lot more time outside, and had time to quietly reflect.

Goals Achieved?
I want to exercise more.
I want to spend more time outside.
I want to spend time by myself (e.g., thinking, listening to music/podcasts).

It was during one of the walks that I came up with the idea to write this article. Keep your priority
focused on the outcome that you want to achieve, not the measurement.

Epilogue: 2024 Goals:

I am very much still working on how I want to implement these (more on that later), but I’ve come up
with a few goals so far for 2024.

I decided to start with this piece. I hope you’ll join me as I start my walk toward achieving my 2024
goals. Have a Happy New Year!

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