Entrepreneurial Leadership and Management . . . and Other Stuff


Motivational Black Hole

Have you ever attended a meeting where, regardless of the the topics covered, everyone left feeling deflated and depressed?  Or maybe, you had a one-on-one with your manager where your first instinct at the conclusion of the get-together was to go home and cry or spend the evening at a bar?  Almost everyone has, of course, because we’ve almost all had the occasion of working for someone who doesn’t have the slightest clue about how to motivate people.  Sometimes, in fact, these people do just the opposite.

I’ve been in meetings (come to think of it, I may have even run some of them) where the person in charge gave an impassioned speech that was followed by fruitful discussion and was on the path to conclude in a seemingly upbeat and positive way.  One that would cause people to leave energized with a strong desire to go out and solve big problems or make tremendous progress.  Instead, though, these meetings were concluded with a few words that sucked the air out of the room and the energy from people’s drive.  They create a motivational black hole from which no positive energy could escape.

There are simple concluding phrases that have such an impact, like “do your job” or “work harder.”  Sometimes these messages need to be communicated one-on-one of course, but in groups they’re almost sure to kill the mood.  My favorite motivational black hole message is the profound, “don’t screw it up.”  There are few more innocuous (from the manager’s point of view) messages that can be as deflating as this one.  It implies that screwing up may, in fact, be a possible intent of people’s actions.  “Gee, thanks Mr./Ms. Manager, if you hadn’t told me that, I might have decided that the screw-it-up path was the right one to follow – I’ll watch out for that now.”  After hearing this, does anyone think their manager has complete faith in their ability to succeed?  Doh!

Yesterday, I ran across some notepads with the message below.  I think every new manager should get stationary like this – maybe with some guidelines on how to use it, too <g>.  Just looking at it cracks me up and reminds me of the importance of simple messages. 

Motivational vacuum message pad

BTW, if you’ve never checked out the excellent messages from Despair, Inc.  You should.  You’ll laugh out loud, but the message comes through clearly.

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 April 29th, 2007  
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Jason over at Innovation Zen has a great post up titled, The Process of EmpowermentEmpowerment is, perhaps, the most important tool a manager has in building strong and successful people and teams.  From the post:

[empowerment is] the process that provides greater autonomy to employees through the sharing of relevant information in the provision of control over factors affecting job performance.”

Effectively empowering employees results in instilling a fire-in-the-belly drive and motivational energy that can ignite people to achieve far beyond what they are capable of without it.  Again, from the post:

. . . when they have been legitimately empowered, it is more likely that their efforts will pay off in both personal satisfaction and the kind of results that the organization values.”

Knowing how to empower people is a tool that should be in every manager’s quiver.

Worth checking out.

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 April 29th, 2007  

Simple Managerial Questions

Managing is hard.  It often involves loads of responsibility without commensurate control; it is sometimes thankless and unrewarding; and it always involves working with people that have a variety of often divergent goals and personalities.  And, just when you think you have it all figured out, the team or project changes and you need to adopt a new set of rules.

I don’t use the word rules here arbitrarily.  Every manager needs rules.  If not for their team, at least for themselves.  Rules help a manager bound the actions of his/her team and keep the team moving in the same direction, even when its members seem to all have a different compass.  Rules also help a manager get things done in a somewhat repeatable fashion and to keep his/her sanity while doing it.

I find basic rules calming.  They may not always accomplish what I hope they do, but they certainly make me feel better.  Many years ago I established a rule for myself for how I would use simple questions in my practice of management.  For me, keeping these questions straight became a cornerstone of my management style – the simple questions I asked and how and when I asked them set the baseline for the culture of the group and how things worked within it.

As you might expect, the questions were simply, how, what when and why . . .

  • The first questions are directed to the manager him/herself.  It’s the manager’s job to be able to answer the basic questions of what and why.  That is, what needs to be done and why the group needs to do it.  Answering these questions and making those answers profoundly clear to the group is the most important part of how a manager leads.  Good and meaningful answers will compel the team to rise to the occasion and carry the successful completion of the project as their own.  They can be motivational and exciting.  Ultimately, they paint a picture of what can be if great things are achieved with the project and they make people feel great being a part of it. 
  • The next question is directed to the group now charged with the project at hand.  The manager needs to ask the group when the project will meet certain milestones, the biggest of which is, of course, “when will it be done?”  By letting the group members determine when milestones will be achieved, they become deeply involved with the project, taking it on as their own.  Generally speaking, they also usually know a lot more about what needs to be done than the manager and are better equipped to answer this question correctly.
  • Inevitably, milestones will be missed and new information that will feed back into the direction of the project will be discovered.  It’s then the manager’s job to ask why.  It’s very important that the manager and team understand why problems have occurred so that adjustments can be made to the project or even the team, itself.  It’s also almost guaranteed that new information about the project and how it is being completed will be learned along the way.  This information needs to be exposed as soon as possible to have the most positive effect on what is happening.
  • Hows are questions asked by the group members of themselves.  Hows form the basis of the key challenges of the jobs of each member of the group.  Each person being able to manage how things are done for their part of the project is motivating.  Completing a task as outlined and planned by oneself is even more motivating.  When people are told what to do and how to do it, they’ll almost never get motivated by the project.  If they get to invent, plan, discover and implement themselves, though, they will be driven by their ownership of their work and will take pride in its successful completion.

That’s it.  Pretty simple.  Of course that doesn’t encapsulate the entire range of management questions that need to be put forward, but it’s a great start.  Keep in mind that it’s not only the particular questions that make this basic rule powerful, it’s how and when you ask them.

Additionally, remember that none of these questions gets asked just once.  They should be asked throughout the execution of the project.  For very senior groups they might just be asked once in a while.  For junior ones, they should get asked much more frequently, even multiple times per week.  Asking the questions, including those directed to the manager, keeps the group aligned, informed and motivated.  A simple management rule that goes a long way.

 April 27th, 2007  
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Anxiety and Fear – Use It or Lose It

Brad Feld has a great post titled, Fear is the Mindkiller, up on his Feld Thoughts blog.  Being a generally anxious entrepreneur myself, it’s hard to deny Brad’s claim that there are huge advantages to letting go of fear, anxiety and guilt.  At least from a wishful perspective.  From Brad’s post:

I have long believed that fear, anxiety, and guilt are useless emotions in an entrepreneurial context.  When I get into an existential discussion with some people about this, they argue that there are contexts where these are useful emotions, but I still haven’t found them.  So – my first advice is “let go of the fear and anxiety (and guilt) â€“ immediately.” 

Brad’s premise is that when you feel such emotions, you should step back, take a deep breath, get away from things and approach any issues that you’re facing once you’re refreshed from your business respite.  Totally makes sense and it’s great advice even if you’re not anxious – it’s always a good idea to step back and get a different perspective.  But it just doesn’t work for everyone.

Long ago, I gave up on trying to remove anxiety from my everyday business dealings.  Fear is something I’ve never felt in day-to-day business, but anxiety and guilt are pretty standard for me.  Perhaps as one of the comments to the original post states, this is because of some deep-seated lack of self-confidence.  Or, maybe, it’s a fear of failure or even the result of years of psychological issues caused by growing up in a dysfunctional family (just kidding, Mom . . .).  None of these, of course, will go away because I take the weekend off.

Personally, I prefer to redirect the energy in the anxiety back into my work, careful not to let my anxiety be communicated to others.  Success and accomplishment do a lot to relieve the anxiety, leaving plenty of emotional space to be filled by the next anxious wave of issues that will surely follow <g>. 

Seriously, follow Brad’s advice, it’s excellent.  Step back and let new light fall on the problems at hand.  Often, you’ll find a new path that is devoid of the negative emotions you had previously.  If that doesn’t work, though, don’t sweat it.  Channel the energy into action.  Don’t let the anxiety absorb energy that could be used to resolve the issue and, ultimately squelch the bad feelings.  If you end up sitting around, wallowing in your negative emotions, you’ll just feed right back into them, making them worse.  Always play offense, it’s terrific therapy.

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 April 25th, 2007  
 General Business  

Hertz Shelby GT-H

Hertz Shelby GT-H

While in Arizona this week, I was able to get my hands on one of Hertz’ rent-a-racer Shelby GT-H Mustangs.  This is a special run of higher performance Mustangs assembled by Shelby Automobiles exclusively available from Hertz for rental at “select” locations.  This is a rehash of a similar program rolled out in 1966 where Hertz and Carroll Shelby produced 1000 Shelby Mustangs and made them available for thrashing for a $17/day rental fee (plus mileage, of course).

The new versions, rolled out in 2006, are from a smaller run of 500 cars.  Like their predecessors, they are all black with gold stripes – the Hertz colors, of course.  The engine is a stock Ford 4.6 as found in the standard Mustang GT, with Ford Racing cold air intake and performance exhaust; tuned shocks, lower springs, sway bars and a variety of braces.  Several other tweaks are made, but nothing too severe.  All cars sport automatic transmissions.

The car I rented had 14K+ miles on it and they all looked and felt like pretty hard miles.  More on that in a minute.  The rental process is not the standard find-your-name-on-the-board-get-in-the-car-and-drive-out-the-exit one used during most car rentals.  You have to go in and see a manager, who then walks you out to the car and goes over every detail of the exterior and engine compartment with you.  Anything even slight awry is noted.  I was warned several times that the car had to come back the way it was when I took it “or else.”  OK, he didn’t really say “or else,” but whatever he said, that’s the message I got.

The first thing I noticed when I got in the car is that a lot of #2 plastic recyclables gave their lives for the interior.  Wow, there was a lot of plastic in the car.  The seats were beat, but I would bet that they were never that great to begin with.  Sight lines and visibility were OK, but the cowl on the hood made seeing small children in front of the car an impossibility.  Oh well, sacrifices have to be made . . .

Next, it became clear that while there is a nice torquey feel to the car when the go-fast pedal is pressed, the noise to speed ratio is out of control.  What I mean is that the engine revs and the exhaust sounds great, but the cars motion isn’t proportional.  The accelerator has to go through a big arc before the car is really hauling.  Needless to say, it does haul, there’s just nothing subtle about getting it there.  I never got to really open it up because there was traffic everywhere I went.  Cornering was as expected.  With stability control on, I never found its limits on public roads.  The squealing tires don’t instill loads of confidence, though.

If you’re a refinement snob, there is little that you’d like about this car.  Go rent something else.  If you like the look and feel of classic American muscle, though, you should definitely give this rental ride a try.  It runs a bit more than $17/day now, but mileage is unlimited <g>.

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 April 22nd, 2007  
 Stuff with a Motor  

The 2007 New York International Auto Show

If you want to skip my drivel about the show and just see the pictures, click here.

My son and I made our annual pilgrimage to New York City for the Auto Show last week.  We go to take a look at the few concept cars there, to see exotics that we don’t get to see very often on the streets of New England and to enjoy the perplexed faces of those who actually use the show to shop for a car – the impossibly crowded space barely allows viewing of vehicles, let alone any type of thorough examination.

This year was a bit disappointing.  There were no surprises – between us, we get just about every car magazine available in the US and read a load of auto blogs –  and the concept cars didn’t blow us away for the most part.  The Chevy Camaro, probably the best of the concepts there, was also at last year’s show.  Lexus showed their LF-A supercar, which is cool, but will have to change drastically before it hits the streets if, in fact, it ever does.

Chevy Camaro Lexus LF-A

Auto media pundits are claiming that the best of show was the Lexus LS600h L.  This is the hybrid version of Lexus’ long wheel base (think Mercedes S Class, BMW 7L Series, and Audi’s 8L).  It’s a big car with reclining rear seats as an option.  That should give you some idea of the size.  The car also comes equipped with Lexus’ new 8-cylinder engine displacing 5.0 liters.  So why the 600 moniker?  Because the hybrid technology used in the car makes it generate the power of a 6 liter engine because of its added electric motors, according to Lexus.  Whatever.  While I’m certainly not a huge fan of the current gas/hybrid implementations (see my posts on the subject), I think that applying hybrid technology to big vehicles is a very good idea.  I stand by my belief that these big vehicles should also primarily be driven by diesel engines, though.

Lexus LS

My son thought the highlight of the show was a tossup between the Lexus IS-F (notice the consistent Lexus “F” label – it represents Lexus factory tuned line of vehicles like Mercedes’ AMG, BMW’s M and Audi’s S) and the Audi R8.  The Lexus is a significant car in that it is a real competitor to the BMW 3-series.  Lexus shoehorns a 5 liter 8-cylinder engine generating 400+ hp into a fairly nice package to create a real pocket rocket.  Automatic-only and a likely dose of Lexus softness will probably differentiate it from the Bimmer.

Lexus IS Audi R8

I have to agree with that the R8 is very cool.  Audi is going after Porsche with this two-seat, mid-engined baby and they’ve done a great job, at least when it comes to the design.  I’m not sure I like the panel aft of the doors (see the pix), but it doesn’t take too much from the whole car.  The car uses Audi’s 4.2L 8-cylinder engine from the RS4.  They’ve also announce another version with a slightly detuned Lamborghini (which they own) 10-cylinder engine set to compete with Porsche’s Turbo.  When this thing is released as a convertible, then I may have to jump into the R8 as best in show camp.

I love the look of the new AMG versions of the Mercedes S and CL classes of cars – the S63/65 and CL63/65.  While there has been a lot of press on these and they were not big NY Auto Show announcements, I think that seeing them were the highlight for me.

Mercedes AMG CL

Those who know me also know that my tastes run a bit to the unconventional side of many things, especially cars.  So it should come as no surprise that my favorite “car” of the show was the Dodge Sprinter.  I guarantee that you have seen Sprinters around, although you probably ignore them.  They are becoming the handyman, plumber and electrician workhorse vehicles, replacing many vans.  They are impossibly large vehicles inside – much larger than they look like they can be from the outside.  When you get in them, two thoughts cross your mind.  First, you wonder if you could play basketball inside them and, second, how does the structure stay upright given the fact that there’s no cross-bracing.  The Sprinter comes in a variety of configurations from totally utilitarian to a fully-customized camper (with room for your entire neighborhood).  I love this thing.  It’s too bad that it would never fit in my garage.  Otherwise I might be tempted to add one to the 2-Speed fleet.

Dodge Sprinter

A very clear trend worth noting from the show is the number of small cars being produced or proposed by the world’s auto makers for American roads.  My guess is that the soon-to-be-introduced Smart ForTwo is driving some of the manufacturers to make sure they play in this emerging American market.  Europe and Asia have had small cars (I’m really talking about two passengers and an engine wrapped in a cocoon) for a while, it’s about time these were available in the US, even though sharing roads with Suburbans might be a little intimidating.  Personally, I think these cars are very cool and I welcome the onslaught of these new vehicles onto the American auto scene.

Check out all the pix here.

 April 19th, 2007  
 Stuff with a Motor  

The World, It Be a Changin’

Growing up in the 60s, the nightly news reports were full of pictures of death and destruction throughout Southeast Asia.  Out of repetition, places with names like Saigon, Ho Chi Min City, Da Nang and Phnom Penh became permanently ingrained in my memory, although always associated with fear and some truly disgusting images.  Of these cities, Phnom Penh always stuck out.  As a child, I never really understood what was happening in Cambodia (not that I truly understood anything happening in the region), so I listened a bit more intently when I heard the city’s name.

My confusion in the late 60s turned to disbelief and disgust in the 70s when the Khmer Rouge led by Pol Pot executed anyone who was educated or even appeared to be educated.  He wanted Cambodia to have an agrarian economy and was going to make it happen regardless of how many Cambodians had to die.

With these being the dominant memories I have of the city, I was delighted today when I saw Phnom Penh on the list of cities from which visitors of this blog are from.  OK, it’s at the bottom of the list, but I think it’s very cool.

Feedburner Stats for 2-Speed

Obviously, the days of Pol Pot are long over.  I doubt that he would appreciate the Internet or, especially, the freedom of speech exercised in blogs.  I’m happy that Cambodians have such freedom and access today.

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 April 19th, 2007  
 Misc Thoughts  

What’s in a Product Name?

My son and I went to the New York International Auto Show last week (I’ll post on the show in the next few days).  While walking around the show floor, I was struck by how practical marketing has become in the automotive business.  Virtually everything related to promoting a vehicle has gotten so quantitative.  Car names have a letter indicating the body size and a number indicating the engine size.  We talk in liters of engine displacement, horsepower and torque measurements, gas mileage, cubic feet of storage space and number of cup holders.  Where’s the vision?  Where’s the passion and emotional connection?  Where’s the promise.

What happened to the days when car companies were in charge of promoting the promise of the future?  I’m thinking the celebration of winged flight, the space race or paving over a good portion of the planet so that we can get to the mall faster.  Fins, wings, nose cones  and rooftop windows all sent messages to the customer – be part of the amazing changes going on in the world.  Be part of the future.

The messages weren’t only embedded in product design.  Product names carried them as well.  I just ran across a list of The Ten Best Auto Marketing Names compiled by Car and Driver magazine way back in 1993.  What ever happened to great marketing labels like these?

  • Go-Devil Power – 1942 Willy’s
  • Velvet-Pressure Jumbo-Drum Brakes – 1953 Chevrolet
  • Gyro-Torque Drive with Scat Gear for Passing – 1953 Dodge
  • Kitten-Soft Seat Cushions – 1955 Chevrolet
  • Scene-O-Ramic Windshield – 1955 Nash
  • Trigger-Torque Engines – 1955 Ford
  • Roto-Flow Torque Tube Drive – 1958 Buick
  • Quadra-Poise Suspension – 1958 Pontiac
  • Sculpturamic Styling – 1958 Chevrolet
  • Roto-Matic Power Steering – 1959 Oldsmobile

I’ll add two of my all-time favorites to this list . . .

  • Turbo-Hydromatic Transmission – Many years for GM
  • Vista Cruiser – The Oldsmobile wagon with the side/roof windows

Kitten-Soft Seat Cushions.  Ya gotta love it.  OK, perhaps you can’t get away with that kind of schmaltz these days.  Have we gotten to the point where products can’t elicit dreams, though.  It seems like a real emotional attachment would provide great selling leverage.  Maybe it still exists, but like many, I’ve become jaded and ignore it.  Come to think of it, maybe I’m the guy being targeted with the H420-i GLX LWB Deluxe model name after all.

 April 19th, 2007  
 Marketing, Stuff with a Motor  

Controlling by Listening

In my younger days as an entrepreneur (entrepreneur in training?) – all those many years ago – I had plenty of temper and virtually no control.  I mistook any disagreement with my opinions as a personal attack and felt I had to vigorously defend my position at all times and usually very loudly.  While I’m sure that I can blame something my parents did or didn’t do for this deep-seated and subjugated rage, it probably had more to do with the fact I often felt that I didn’t know exactly what I was doing and I was afraid that people were going to find out.  Getting loud and obnoxious was my way of trying to mask this fear, along with my insecurity, and to feel like I was in control.

There you go.  There’s enough business therapy in that paragraph to save you a bundle at the psychologist’s office.

Not every manager has to deal with such demons.  There are loads of people with the wisdom and self-assurance to find their path to excellence without making fools of themselves or, at least, not wasting so much time.  My guess is that I’m not alone in the camp of having to work these things out, though.  In my case, I was very lucky.  I had an older and wiser mentor who took me aside after making a fool of myself and made me repeat the mantra, when you yell you lose power.  At first, I didn’t get it, but I eventually came around to snatching the pebble out of my master’s hand.  Yelling just shuts down the discussion.  Less information is put on the table for fear of the negative response and people don’t even think about commenting on actions or decisions because of the likely reprisal.

Because my mentor was a patient man, he just chocked my slow progress up to my being dense and kept at me.  Every Friday evening, he reviewed the number of times I had lashed out that week and gave me informal goals for the coming weeks.  Slowly, but surely, I learned and eventually moved on to more advanced concepts like, just shut up and listen, and, make sure you understand what the other person is saying before you pass judgement.  Revolutionary.

It was a real epiphany for me.  I started to listen and my responses turned from loud retorts to probing questions.  More got done, the groups I led moved faster and people started to be interested in telling me what they thought and how they were doing.  Discussions got better, more issues and advantages were exposed before they became crises and my direct reports began to enjoy their jobs more.  My job as a manager got easier, too.  Funny how seemingly small changes can have such a major impact, huh? 

Listening, probing and responding thoughtfully are important for everyone no matter what they do or who they interact with.  For managers, though, these skills are absolutely critical.  In fact, they represent the the most important and basic skills of a successful manager.  If you find yourself in a situation like mine a local mentor is a real asset.  If one isn’t around, though, changing the way you operate to adopt these principles isn’t hard.  Review your performance after each meeting and interaction.  It’s not a formal process, but the reflection will help you make minor adjustments for the next time.  The results will definitely be worth the effort.

 April 17th, 2007  

Communicating with Your Board: Equity Grants

As your company grows, you’ll find yourself frequently seeking approval for grants of equity from your board.  Most often, the desired grants will be for new employees, but you’ll also want to use equity to recognize and retain existing employees, consultants, advisors and even your board members.  Since many grants will be made, it’s important to be able to present a request for equity,

  1. In a standard (for your company) format so the basis for making decisions between meetings is as consistent as possible.
  2. Relative to other similar grants whether being done at the same time or having been made previously.
  3. With as much contextual information as possible about the people and the grants, themselves.

First, I’ll take a step back by saying that in almost all cases, your board needs to approve any grant of equity to anyone.  When you’re starting out, it may be the entire board who approves such grants.  Later, though, there is likely to be a formalized compensation committee of the board that will be responsible for review and approval.  Even though the compensation committee is responsible for being closer to the compensation information than the general board, it would be a mistake to believe that the members of the group remember what has happened before or understand the state of things in the company the way that you do.  There is just too much information to remember when they are not exposed to it on a day-to-day basis. 

The good news is that it’s relatively easy to present all the information needed to bring your board up to speed on the critical and contextual data in this area.  First, always include a cap table with your board package even if it hasn’t changed since the last time one was distributed.  The cap table gives the board/comp committee a great picture of who has what and makes it easy to make sure that there is some consistency in how grants are made.  Additionally, board members, especially those who are also investors, will be thinking about how any grant is going to affect their overall ownership in the company, even if they don’t admit it.  By giving them an up-to-date cap table, they can do the math themselves.  After all, it is all about me.

Second, have a table like the following in your package [note: I include the concept of options to acquire shares as part of shares]:

Name Position # Shares % Ownership # Existing Shares/% Vested Range

 Where the columns are:

  • Name: the name of the person who will get the proposed grant if approved.
  • Position: their current position in the company or the position that they will take when hired or retained.
  • # Shares: the number of shares and type of equity the person will receive.  Are they options, restricted stock, performance shares, etc?
  • % Ownership: what percentage of the company is being granted on a fully diluted basis.
  • # Existing Shares: how many shares of the company does this person already have (applicable for existing or former employees or consultants).  It’s also good to include what percentage of their options, if any, have already vested.
  • Range: what is the range of shares previously granted to people in this position or, if the position is new, what is the range of company ownership for this position in other companies at the same stage of development.

Third, be prepared to discuss the background and/or performance of anyone on the table.  In my experience, detailed descriptions are generally only required for people getting big grants, but it really looks bad if you can’t explain why someone is on the list in the first place.

This may seem like a lot, but it’s really quite easy.  It’s likely that you process all of this information already and just don’t formalize it.  The key, of course, is to not just do this one time, but to keep it up.  Consistency is important and will become increasingly important as the company gets larger.  By showing the proposed grants with context and making the comparison to previously approved ones straightforward, you increase the likelihood that you’ll get the grant approved without issue while making the entire process as smooth and fast as possible.  After all, it’s not fun having to go back to a new employee and tell them that their grant was not yet approved because the board needed more information . . .

If this stuff is interesting, you should also check out Chris Wand’s How to Create a Good Board Package series over at Ask the VC and my previous post, Board Meetings – A CEO’s Point of View.

 April 13th, 2007  
 Boards, Management, Startups