Entrepreneurial Leadership and Management . . . and Other Stuff

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01
Mar

Yes, the US “Won” the Winter Olympics

Apolo Ohno - Flag

37 medals, count ‘em. More than the US has ever won in the Winter Olympics (the previous US record was 34 in 2002 in Salt Lake); the first time the country has won the medal count since 1932 in Lake Placid; and more medals than any other country in the history of the event (Germany won 36, also in 2002). It’s sports. There are winners and losers. That’s the way it works. The US won. Celebrate it, America, you deserve to.

Americans are a funny bunch. For the most part, we want to obnoxiously demonstrate our leadership and strength, but in the end, we spend more time questioning and even regretting our exercise of the same than we do celebrating our success – any success. It seems that as a nation, we’re stuck between the polar extremes of being the ugly Americans and being the most stoic, self-deprecating, politically correct, wussiest humans to walk the planet.

The litany of commentary – both print and digital – discounting the performance of the US Olympic Team at the 2010  Winter Olympics is shocking and disappointing to me. Why is the US so afraid of admitting to itself that it won these Games? It’s not like we would be declaring world domination in sports or anything like that. The timers reported and the judges declared that the American athletes were better in more of the individual events than any other country during the 2010 Winter Olympics. Isn’t that simply the fact?

Speaking of facts . . . for those in the US who feel the need to downplay the US victory, here’s an arrow for your quiver.  According to nationmaster.com, little Norway has kicked our ass in the Winter Olympics, as well as everyone else’s, during the history of the Winter event. The US isn’t close to being the all-time leader in the Games. Now do you feel like you can celebrate a little more? We’re not dominant. In fact, for most of the years that the Winter Olympics have run, the US medal count was only in the single digits.

All-Time Winter Olympic Medals by Country - Source-Nationmaster.com

I think the problem here is that we believe that the correct behavior for the world leader is one of introspection and humility. We’re afraid that if we show hubris, other countries will look down on us as not acting appropriately or as a leader should. While I question whether or not anyone should look at things that way and, for the most part, don’t really support it, I certainly understand the position and concern. I believe, however, that this neglects an internal need for certain behaviors. A need that is stronger now than it has been in over a century in this country.

Americans need to celebrate who we are and what we do. Most Americans barely know how the country leads in many scientific endeavors, in entrepreneurialism, in giving aide to foreign countries. These, of course, are the important things to celebrate, but they’re not visible. For some reason, the governing bodies of the US choose not to make a big deal of them – to make Americans feel proud of what they do. Any CEO worth his or her salt knows the value of helping their employees feel great about what they do. The tangible and intangible benefits are profound. The same thing needs to be done for the citizens of a country.

While sports are clearly less noble than other endeavors, they are visible to all and almost always black and white in terms of success and failure. They are a great tool for creating and celebrating success, especially when the stage is a worldwide one. We should use this year’s victory in the Olympics as a platform to declare success for Americans – admittedly, a minor one – to help us feel good about a real achievement. This is about celebrating within the country, not about bragging outside of it.

Before you blow me off here, let me give you two thoughts. We seemed to have no trouble accepting that the success in this year’s Super Bowl of the New Orleans Saints would be a good thing for the city of New Orleans, right? That one’s easy. No one is afraid of pissing off Indianapolis (the Indianapolis Colts lost in teh Super Bowl) residents by celebrating the success of another city in sports. Is there a reason that winning the Olympics is any different? And to those who are fixated on the idea that countries shouldn’t celebrate the success of sports teams, I ask you to look at the World Cup (soccer). If you want to see patriotic declarations of success that dwarf anything America could possible demonstrate, check out how European and South American countries celebrate when they beat other countries in World Cup games. Whew!

Sorry, I know this is a rant and a long one at that, but while I’m on a roll here, I’d like to rebut various arguments discounting America’s victory at the 2010 Olympic Games.

  • While the US won the most medals, it did not win the most gold medals and gold medals are what really count. First, let me congratulate the Canadians who, with 14 gold medals, dominated the top tier of the podium more often than any other country. Second, the number of golds is not a good indicator of the best team at the Olympics, it is most often a better indicator of the team with the greatest genetic anomalies, seriously. If you look at medal counts over the vast majority of previous Olympics, it’s easy to see that a single athlete is the cause of a high number of gold medal wins. Think Michael Phelps or Usain Bolt in the last summer Olympics. It’s simply not a good indicator of team performance.
  • The US only wins because of events created since 1990. Yes, it’s true that Americans have tended to be better at the higher risk sports added to the Games since the early 90’s. At least up until this winter’s Games. In this year’s games, Australians, Chinese, German, Norwegian, Belarus and certainly Canadian athletes often outperformed the Americans. In fact, the reason the Americans won the Olympics is more because of their performance in classic alpine events and even in some nordic events that have been in the games from the beginning.
  • The US does better in judged events (figure skating, half-pipe, freestyle skiing, etc.) than it does in strictly timed events (slolom, super-G, speed skating, etc.). Statistically this has been true, historically. Most US medals in the past have been in skating and most of those in figure skating. But what does this statement imply – that judged events are somehow invalid and shouldn’t be part of the Olympics? Should style and athleticism not be part of the Olympics? Whatever your take on that question, it is part of the Games. The fact that the US wins its fair share of those events shouldn’t discount the country’s overall achievement.
  • The US Olympic team is larger than most other teams and has an unfair advantage. If a country sends a huge number of non-competitive athletes, does it affect the number of medals it gets? There is almost no effect. One country having more athletes does not keep another country from having more. A country enters its best athletes in an event. If the country doesn’t have a competitive entry, fewer athletes are entered. Simple as that. There is no penalty for having either more qualified athletes or more unqualified ones, it just makes sense to only bring qualified ones and the US has more than many countries. The only potential advantage for a country with more athletes is that when an injury occurs, they are more likely to still be in a position to take a medal in an event. That only happens, of course, of when the replacement athlete is qualified enough to win.

I could go on and on. They’re simply reasons to take a victory and discount it to make it modestly meaningless. We don’t have to be assholes to celebrate and there is huge upside to celebrating successes, even ones this trivial.

Just one final thought. For those of you still desperate to somehow discredit the US victory at the Olympics here’s a reasonable, IMO, way of doing it. One can argue that the only appropriate measure of success at the Games is the number of medals won per capita – that is, the number of medals won in relation to the number of citizens of the country winning them. Let’s face it, at the level of athleticism required to be the world’s best in any sport, the size of the genetic pool is really a factor. With that in mind and, again according to nationmaster.com, Liechtenstein is far more successful at the Winter Olympics over time than any other nation on the planet. The US falls to 17th place. There you go. We suck after all.

 Per Capita Winter Olympic Medals - Source-Nationmaster.com

 March 1st, 2010  
 Will  
 Leadership, Misc Thoughts  
   
 6 Comments
22
Sep

You Go Where You’re Looking

When beginners attend auto racing or high performance driving school, they are taught that drivers tend to go where they’re looking and, where they look is usually only 10-15 feet in front of their vehicle.  I see this all the time as I’m riding my bike.  While cycling on the right side of a shoulder, a passing car will wonder into the shoulder right where I’m riding even when there’s no oncoming traffic.  I know that the driver is looking at me, even thinking that he/she should avoid me.  Nonetheless, because they’re looking at me, they tend to steer that way (just because you’re paranoid . . . ).  High performance drivers are taught to look much further out and to strategically optimize their driving around a point further ahead and to let their natural tendency to steer where they’re looking take them to where they want to end up, instead of just reacting to what they see directly in front of them.

Things are similar with startups.  It’s often easy to get caught with your head down, focused on near-term problems and opportunities while ignoring the big picture and where the new enterprise should be headed.  As with focusing on what’s happening on the road directly in front of you, when you solely focus on the myriad of short-term problems you have to deal with, they will consume your thoughts, energy and time.  You will be constantly drawn towards them.  Soon, the startup’s strategy will become less strategic and more tactical.

Here are a few short-term issues that I see grabbing the attention of startups all the time:

  • features, features and more features – yeah, you have to add features to your product, you simply can’t (and don’t want to) add every requested feature all at once.  There are two problems that come to mind here, one is that if you don’t step back and ask yourself if the feature moves you toward your strategic goal before implementing it, you run the risk of wasting very precious time and, two, if you focus all your attention on features at the expense of architecture, you can build a house of cards that will fail miserably later.  Each feature should be weighed in the context of the product’s goals before time is spent on it.
  • reaction versus response – when a startup has only a handful of customers, it’s easy for it to get distracted by the feedback it gets from any one of them.  It’s easy to react to every call, email and tweet regarding the product and to try to address the needs or wants of the few people who seem to be paying attention.  It’s important that the startup keep in mind, as with features, spending time with early users is valuable inasmuch as the feedback is taken in perspective.  Is the customer the target customer, for example?  If not, you may spend your time reacting to feedback that doesn’t help you land the kind of customers you’re trying to get.
  • the technology itself – loads of startups end up getting caught in the vortex of the underlying technology at the expense of marketing or gathering customer input.  Often, because that’s what the founders really know well.  The product is required, of course, but is just not sufficient.  Simply put, it is highly unlikely you can engineer a perfect product that will dazzle your customers and meet their needs on its first pass.  Product development is much more than technology development and needs to include data from the market and from potential customers.  Only when you have a complete package of technology, target customer input and market information do you have a real shot at delivering a successful product.

There are many more factors that cause startups to eschew strategy for tactics.  A founding team needs to set a course based on a point reasonably far ahead and not optimize around what is happening now.  That, of course, doesn’t mean that it can ignore what is taking place near-term.  A good driver uses his/her peripheral vision to observe what’s happening close to the vehicle.  Similarly, a startup needs to treat short-term tactics seriously, but only within the scope of the longer-term strategy.  Longer term isn’t 10 years.  That’s just not reasonable or even possible.  But a year or two is reasonable with even a few brain cells reserved for thinking out even further.

Keep in mind, you steer where you’re looking.  Steer the company toward a point in the reasonable future while keeping an eye on what’s happening today and you’ll find that you will encounter fewer mistakes, less rework and a smoother path to success.

 September 22nd, 2009  
 Will  
 General Business, Leadership, Management  
   
 10 Comments
19
Aug

Can Your Organization Handle A Top Notch Employee?

[Danger: football analogies used with abandon in this post.]

As the 2009 NFL season opened, Michael Vick, ex-Atlanta Falcons star quarterback and infamous dog torturer/killer, was hired by the Philadelphia Eagles after spending a short time (too short) in prison.  In my opinion, this situation is proof, once again, that truth is far stranger than fiction.  That the NFL would allow this guy to play again is one thing.  That any team would pick him up is another, incredibly absurd, one.  Of course, NFL teams conveniently ignore wife beating, late-night stabbings in bars and the carrying of unlicensed weapons so I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised.  Alas, this is all fodder for a post on another subject.  For now, I want to discuss the related challenges of the hiring and management of top-notch employees who often know they’re the best, make it perfectly clear to everyone else that they are the best and expect to be subject to a different set of rules just because they’re the best.

Once in a while, you run across people who are not only among the smartest, most capable, and hardest working people you’ve ever met, but they’re also quiet, humble, selfless and unpretentious.  Totally phenomenal.  Think Tom Brady, quarterback of the New England Patriots or Payton Manning of the Indianapolis Colts.  In a business context, you hire those people in a minute – whether or not you can afford them.  They add incredible value not only through the specific work they do, but through their actions, reactions, leadership and participation as well.  They have a positive impact on the performance of everyone around them.

Sometimes, though, when you find a person with such talents, they can be arrogant, egotistical and, let’s face it, an asshole.  Do you hire those people as quickly?  Do you sacrifice what your gut is screaming at you to get that level of ability and talent into your company?  My short answer is no, it’s just not worth it (see my previous post, When To Get Rid Of The “Best” People Who Work For You).

But what if you’re in dire straights.  You absolutely, positively need some serious ammunition in the fight against failure.  Do you hire a famous bad boy like Terrell Owens (T.O.) or Randy Moss?  Do you convince yourself that you’re the best manager around and you can handle the wildcat or maybe even tame them?  Can you do what others have not?  Survey says . . . probably not, try to find someone else.

If, however, you are a strong leader and manager and you understand the positives and negatives of what strong individuals can bring to a team, you may have a shot.  Further, if you’ve already built a team that follows your lead and sticks together under the culture you’ve built, it may even be a slam-dunk.

Let’s take a look at the aforementioned cases of Terrell Owens, previously an out of control trouble-maker with the Philadelphia Eagles and San Francisco 49ers and Randy Moss, now with the New England Patriots, but previously a problem child with the Oakland Raiders and Minnesota Vikings.  Both T.O. and Moss are among the best receivers in the NFL.  They both know it and believe they deserve recognition for it.  They both have a history of playing for themselves before playing for their team and being trouble-makers on and off the field.

T.O. was treated like the team savior at both S.F. and Philadelphia.  He was kowtowed to, given visibility and his demands were met.  Moss had similar experiences at Minnesota and Oakland.  Big babies who were given a free run because of their incredible talent.  What happened next is enlightening.  T.O. went on to play with the Dallas Cowboys where the owner continued the tradition of putting T.O. on a public pedestal and giving the crying baby what he wanted and Moss went to New England, where the owner and coach told him that he was just another cog in the wheel and treated him like everyone else.

Further, and maybe even more importantly, the Cowboys as a team accepted T.O.’s antics where the Patriots, as a team, wouldn’t put up with Moss’s bullshit.  The result is that Moss became a part of the Patriot team and organization, winning a Super Bowl and breaking the NFL receptions record.  T.O., well, T.O. remained T.O. and was unconditionally released (that means kicked out), once again, and was picked up by another NFL team – the Buffalo Bills.  We’ll see how that goes.

The leaders of the Patriots recognized the cost of bringing an egotistical, loudmouth, crybaby onto the team and made it clear to him through words and actions that it wouldn’t be tolerated.  You step out of line and you will be docked pay and put on the bench.  The team comes before you . . . always.  But the Patriots had an even stronger tool, the team itself.  Apparently, the already tight and focused team wouldn’t put up with any crap.  When there is no support for bad behavior and no ears to listen to out of line complaints or demands, even prima donnas get lonely pretty fast.  The team’s leaders (primarily head coach Bill Belichick) had instilled a culture in the team that was a strong bonding element.  Outsiders have to adopt the culture or the team, itself, will force them out.

So, the questions you need to ask yourself before hiring a notorious super-contributor/bad-boy(girl) are whether you’re a strong enough leader and have you built a strong enough (culturally aligned) team.  If you are and you have, you can probably bring anyone you choose in as a contributor.  If you aren’t (yet) or you haven’t, bringing such a person in will lead to big problems.  If you decide to anyway, you may want to line up that trade ahead of time.

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 August 19th, 2009  
 Will  
 Leadership, Management  
   
 8 Comments
25
Jun

Steve Jobs and the Great Man Theory of Leadership

Bill Taylor’s recent post on Steve Jobs and leadership, “Decoding Steve Jobs: Trust the Art, Not the Artist,” is a must read for emerging leaders or those who aspire to lead.  Taylor discusses how Jobs clings to the Great Man Theory of leadership which works well for him as an unusual skilled leader creatively, but fails miserably for others who try to implement it.

From the blog:

“So In terms of the impact his products have had on the world, Steve Jobs represents the face of business at its best. And yet, in terms of his approach to leadership, Jobs represents the face of business — well, if not at its worst, then certainly not as something worth emulating. It’s not so much the secrecy about his liver transplant or the controversies over backdated stock options. Those are matters of corporate governance and investor relations, which, while important, aren’t all that urgent. To me, the issue is more Jobs’s approach to leadership itself — which, despite the compelling and cutting-edge quality of his products, is strangely unappetizing and often downright retro.”

The author further generalizes:

“. . . The best leaders I know don’t want the job of thinking for everybody else. They understand that if they can tap the hidden genius inside the organization, and the collective genius outside the organization, they will create ideas that will be much more powerful than what even the smartest individual leader could ever come up with on his or her own . . . “

I couldn’t agree more.  While there are a few very successful leaders who can pull off the smartest guy in the room thing [count ‘em on one hand kinda numbers], most great leaders don’t and can’t lead this way.  Replicating Jobs’ tirades, my-rules-are-the-only-rules attitude and overall hubris would destroy most leaders and would doom almost any person trying to establish a leadership role to a crash-and-burn type failure.

Don’t get me wrong.  None of this is meant to take anything away from Jobs as a leader himself – he’s proven to be a successful leader on many levels.  It’s merely to point out that trying to copy his leadership techniques will likely end in failure.  Your odds are much better when you use the capabilities of those around you and share the credit wisely.  Humility is an incredible leadership tool and is very easy to use if you keep your ego from getting in the way. 

Read the article.  Its author does a much better job telling this story.

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 June 25th, 2009  
 Will  
 Leadership  
   
 7 Comments
02
Mar

Leadership the Bobby Orr Way

In this week’s Sports Illustrated, there is an article about Bobby Orr.  For those who don’t know who Orr is, he is currently one of the top hockey player agents in North America.  More importantly, for those who don’t know who Orr was, he was, arguably, the greatest hockey player ever.  He was certainly the greatest hockey player of his time (the 1970s).

As with most sports, one person does not a winning team make.  In hockey, there are five men on the ice at any given time and lines (the group of players on the ice at one time) change frequently.  Success can only come from a true team effort.

In hockey and life in general, there are leaders and there are followers.  Those with talent, especially off the charts talent, can choose to accept their role as a leader – because the most talented are always looked upon to lead by their peers – or they can remain an individual contributor.  In the former case, a great individual can raise the bar for others, challenge them and teach them how to be better, making a larger group of people fundamentally better.  In the latter case, a star player rides alone, doing great things, but limited by the constraints of being an island.

Orr was a natural leader who took the lead and made his team better.  Hard on himself and hard on others.  He quickly gave credit to his teammates and knew that his team would win as a unit or lose as one.  In the article, there is a quote about Orr’s leadership that says it all.  Ken Dryden, a goalie for the Montreal Canadians, who played against Orr says:

“He brought others with him; he wanted them involved.  That’s what made him so different: It felt like a five-player stampede moving toward you – and at his pace.  He pushed his teammates, [because] you’re playing with the best player in the league and he’s giving you the puck and you just can’t mess it up.  You had to be better than you’d ever been.”

Talented individuals in any type of organization have tremendous leadership potential.  When they use their talents to make their entire team better, the results can be outstanding.  The team is comprised of one tremendously talented individual and many people performing at or above the limits of their capabilities, trying to rise to the level of their leader.  When a supremely talented individual chooses to work alone, he/she leaves the team behind, missing the opportunity to leverage their ability across a larger group.  Certainly not a tragedy, but definitely a waste.

If you manage such talented people, it’s your job to teach them the benefits that both they and the entire group get from their accepting the leadership call and the advantages that come from their giving others the puck.

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 March 2nd, 2009  
 Will  
 Leadership, Sports  
   
 4 Comments
21
Feb

When “We” Are “They”

I’m always surprised and a bit taken aback when I hear an employee of any company use the term "they" instead of "we" when referring to the company they work for.  It makes me wonder exactly what it is about the relationship between the company and the employee that prevents that employee from feeling part of the whole – a spoke in the wheel, an integral cog in the machine.  Of course, it’s not only a company-wide phenomenon.  The same thing can happen in smaller groups within the company or, in fact, within any size organization.  Certainly, there are some people who have an aversion to belonging to a group, but I have to believe that, most often, this happens because the leadership and management of the company has failed to create the type of bond that leads to "we."

Does it even matter?  I think so.  If employees feel that they are outsiders, they’re less likely to feel ownership for the success or failure of the organization.  They, most likely, will do their job and go home at the end of the day satisfied that they did what they were assigned.  A person who feels bound to the organization and a critical component of it will likely, however, be focused not only on their own success, but the success of the organization as a whole.  When everyone in a group feels this way, the entire group is more productive, is easier to manage and is more innovative.

It’s easy to blame the employee for not feeling like they are part of the team, but as I said before, the employee’s feeling like an outsider is almost always the fault of his/her management.  And, the onus is on management to fix the problem in order to optimize the performance of the group.  This, obviously, starts with the manager making sure the employee feels like an integral part of a team using simple management techniques involving buy in, delegation, responsibility and trust.

The manager shouldn’t simply dole out tasks to be completed but, instead, he/she should get the members of the team involved in the planning of the tasks required and then hold them responsible and accountable for their deliverables.  Let them come up with the plan, specifications and dates, question them to test that the details meet all constraints and are aligned with the abilities of the group, then let the members of the group execute according to their plan (always remembering that management style needs to change for each person being managed – see It’s OK to Micromanage . . . Sometimes).  That way, success or failure is theirs, not management’s.  This creates buy-in and ownership and, ultimately, a team environment in which each person feels like an important part.

That should cover the “we” related to project ownership.  Here are some other tools to help the employee feel part of the bigger picture:

  • Recognize people for their individual contributions privately and for their group contributions publicly.  That way, others see the implicit reward in working together.
  • Ask for input from people on projects that they aren’t even working on.  Get them thinking about the bigger picture and expand their scope outside their day-to-day focus.
  • Have people teach others – there’s no responsibility or ownership of the outcome quite like that of a teacher’s.
  • Give those with less of a team-focus the responsibility of representing the team to outside groups (OK, maybe not customers at first).  Most people will step up when they are responsible for representing others.

When an employee refers to their group or company as “they,” it’s a sure signal that they don’t have any ownership of the success or failure of the organization.  Nothing good can come of this.  It’s the manager’s responsibility to fix the situation by getting the employee more involved and to feel that the progress of the group/team/company is directly tied to them and that their efforts are valuable because they are a piece of a bigger picture – they are less valuable and less significant if they stand alone.

 February 21st, 2009  
 Will  
 Leadership, Management  
   
 2 Comments
16
Jan

Benjamin Franklin on Leadership 101

I recently finished reading Walter Isaacson’s terrific biography of Benjamin Franklin.  Having read his superb biography of Albert Einstein a couple of months ago, I was anxious to see how he applied his craft to other great people in history.  I’m not disappointed (although I like the Einstein biography a bit more).

In the book, Isaacson refers to Franklin’s autobiography frequently.  So, I decided to check it out as well (full text available online here).  It offers an incredible peak into the ideas and actions of one of the most thoughtful and introspective thinkers in history.  Franklin was always working to improve himself and, as such, used his amazing powers of observation to study social interaction.  In addition to describing these in several of his other writings, he detailed many of them in his autobiography.

Outwardly, he was interested in understanding how people think and react, but inwardly, one gets a sense that he had a strong desire to learn how to lead and, perhaps, even to manipulate people.

Of course, a fundamental arrow in every leader’s quiver is the ability to listen and be listened to.  Further, by understanding another’s position, to be able to then convince them to come around to your way of thinking.  Even better if you can get them to represent your thinking as if it was theirs from the very beginning.  This is one of the fundamentals of strong leadership.

Being the overbearing sort, Franklin thought long and hard about this challenge and how he needed to change to receive a “readier reception and less contradiction” to his opinions.  That is, how to be more humble and less obviously proud.  Here were his conclusions (the numbers in the square brackets are mine so that I can more easily refer to the text in the rest of this post).

My list of virtues continued at first but twelve; but a Quaker friend having kindly informed me that I was generally thought proud, that my pride showed itself frequently in conversation, that I was not content with being in the right when discussing any point, but was overbearing and rather insolent, of which he convinced me by mentioning several instances, I determined endeavoring to cure myself, if I could, of this vice or folly among the rest, and I added Humility to my list, giving an extensive meaning to the word.

I cannot boast of much success in acquiring the reality of this virtue, but I had a good deal with regard to the appearance of it[1]. I made it a rule to forbear all direct contradiction to the sentiments of others, and all positive assertion of my own [2]. I even forbid myself, agreeably to the old laws of our Junto, the use of every word or expression in the language that imported a fixed opinion, such as certainly, undoubtedly, etc., and I adopted, instead of them, I conceive, I apprehend, or I imagine a thing to be so or so, or it so appears to me at present [3]. When another asserted something that I thought an error, I denied myself the pleasure of contradicting him abruptly and of showing immediately some absurdity in his proposition; and in answering, I began by observing that in certain cases or circumstances his opinion would be right, but in the present case there appeared or seemed to me some difference, etc [4]. I soon found the advantage of this charge in my manner; the conversations I engaged in went on more pleasantly.

The modest way in which I proposed my opinions procured them a readier reception and less contradiction; I had less mortification when I was found to be in the wrong, and I more easily prevailed with others to give up their mistakes and join with me when I happened to be in the right [5].”

– Benjamin Franklin from his autobiography

Here’s what I take from this excerpt from his autobiography (the numbers in the list below refer to the corresponding numbers in brackets in the text):

  1. “I cannot boast of much success in acquiring the reality of this virtue, but I had a good deal with regard to the appearance of it.”  Meaning, that it’s great if you are actually humble, but if you’re not, it’s important that you at least act this way.
  2. “I made it a rule to forbear all direct contradiction to the sentiments of others, and all positive assertion of my own.”  This is, perhaps, the most important point for a leader during brainstorming or in a group discussion – let all ideas fly; don’t shoot them down if you disagree (there’s plenty of time for that later); and don’t place your own ideas over those of others.  Doing so will end any real contribution from others and will eventually prevent others from even wanting to contribute at all.
  3. “I even forbid myself, agreeably to the old laws of our Junto, the use of every word or expression in the language that imported a fixed opinion, such as certainly, undoubtedly, etc., and I adopted, instead of them, I conceive, I apprehend, or I imagine a thing to be so or so, or it so appears to me at present.”  A follow-up from point 2.  Select your words wisely, they send subtle messages about whether you are really open to the opinions of others.
  4. “I began by observing that in certain cases or circumstances his opinion would be right, but in the present case there appeared or seemed to me some difference, etc.”  Steer the conversation.  Rather than putting up a stop sign, use directional signals to move the conversation in a direction that you want it to go.
  5. “The modest way in which I proposed my opinions procured them a readier reception and less contradiction; I had less mortification when I was found to be in the wrong, and I more easily prevailed with others to give up their mistakes and join with me when I happened to be in the right.”  By doing all the above things, eschewing open pride and showing some humility, I got what I wanted and made everyone feel good about giving it to me.

Of course, what Franklin learned and subsequently wrote about is how to get what one wants through the basic understanding and manipulation of human nature.  If people feel good about themselves when interacting with you, they’ll feel good about the ideas and direction that come out of such an interaction.

Yeah, it sounds a bit mercenary, but it’s the basic platform for all successful leaders.  It worked 250 years ago and it works exactly the same now.  Try it.  You’ll see.

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 January 16th, 2009  
 Will  
 Leadership  
   
 6 Comments
14
Jul

Software Management Guides from an Expert

Long time friend and cohort, Lorne Cooper, has two new posts up on the AccuRev blog that are must reads if you’re in the software development business.  Aside from his role as CEO of AccuRev (I am a board member and investor), which develops and sells software for software developers, Lorne has a long history of running software companies and projects.  In these posts, he shares some of the wisdom he has gained over the years.

Check ’em out.

 July 14th, 2008  
 Will  
 Leadership, Management, Software  
   
 Comments Off on Software Management Guides from an Expert
20
Jul

Brainstorming – Don’t Shoot the Messenger too Quickly

A long time ago I read a book about group brainstorming – using group-think to solve problems and uncover new ideas and directions.  I don’t remember the book or much that was in it, as is the case for the vast majority of business how-to books that I’ve read.  My one take-away, though, was the concept of accepting all input during a brainstorming session without passing judgement on anything said by anyone.

Yeah, this is hardly a breakthrough when you think about it.  As soon as you shoot down one idea, others are afraid that their idea will be similarly criticized and they clam up.  This then sets off a domino effect of fewer ideas with even fewer add-on ideas which, in turn, completely kills any opportunity for the group to chain off the thoughts of others to come up with new or modified concepts. 

As this un-remembered book suggested, it’s critical for the leader to just shut up, giving every idea its due (always a good idea to write it down on a white board of something to openly signify its value) and encourage everyone else to contribute, learn and grow.  Gee, this idea of the leader shutting up at times comes up frequently.  It’s too bad I suck at it.

As a flawed leader, I’ve made the mistake of shooting down ideas too quickly too often.  As my kids point out today, even when I remain quiet, my face contorts in strange ways clearly indicating how incredibly stupid I think what I’m hearing is.  So, even when I actually dig deep inside and make myself shut up, I really don’t hold back at all.  My face gives away everything.

This might even be acceptable if, in fact, all the ideas I shoot down were actually bad ideas.  The problem is that they often are not bad ideas at all.  My reaction is based on my initial thinking about what has been proposed or, sometimes, just my initial understanding of it.  Once I think it through, I often warm up to the idea.  Although, by that time, I’ve usually squelched the discussion and killed any upside to the brainstorming going on.

You get the idea . . . When you’re in a leadership role during any type of brainstorming, it’s really important to sit back, smile and treat every idea like it was your own.  Even better, like it was from someone that you would listen to even if they were saying something completely wacky (think Albert Einstein or Mahatma Gandhi).  Encourage people to put forward the most preposterous idea possible and for others to add to those ideas.  The minute you put up a wall, the traffic of new ideas will slow to a crawl and, eventually, disappear.

Unless you know everything there is to know (I doubt it), then you and the organization you run will be better off with as many ideas floating around as possible.  After all, you still can think they’re stupid and shut them down later <g>.

 July 20th, 2007  
 Will  
 Leadership  
   
 10 Comments
30
Jun

CEOs Get More Credit Than They Deserve . . . and More Blame

They say it’s lonely at the top.  CEOs are uniquely responsible for the results of the company and how those results are achieved.  No one shares this total responsibility.  There are no peers in the organization and there is, generally, little understanding of the pressures that such responsibility carries.  As such, CEOs are often held up as superheros when things go well and as almost satanic when they don’t.  Fair?  Not exactly.  Reasonable?  Well . . .

In my career, I’ve had the opportunity to run several private companies and a few public ones.  There have been some successes and there have been more than a fair share of failures.  Some of the successes were big ones that were highly visible and some were small and less visible, although at times, even more important.  The same can be said for the failures – while they came in both big and small forms, the big, hairy, nasty ones were not always the most important ones.  Although, they were always the ones that everybody got to see and, likely, remember. 

Sometimes I basked in the glory of the company’s success, getting treated like I carried 750 people on my back across the finish line.  Other times, I got the crap kicked out of me by employees, investors and/or shareholders who thought I was solely responsible for a hiccup in performance.  Both of these points of view are right and both are wrong.

I’m a strong believer in the buck stops here view of the CEO’s role and responsibilities.  The CEO’s role is unique for the fact that he/she is responsible for everything that goes on inside the company – whether or not they are actually in control of it.  In good companies, the CEO is held accountable for what the company does and how it does it.  In this way, getting the lion’s share of credit for a success and being taken to task for a failure are both right.

On the other hand, the job of running a company is complex and multi-faceted.  There are loads of factors related to whether or not the company has short or medium-term successes or failures.  In recognizing the performance of the CEO, some of these factors are often ignored, biasing the external view of the CEO’s performance.  Because of this, both reward and blame may be out of context.  Take, for example, when the overall economy is good, raising all boats with the tide.  Or, when changes in regulatory laws make it difficult to continue to address a market, regardless of the company’s efforts.  Yeah, as I write this I know it sounds like I’m equivocating about the responsibilities of the job.  I’m not, really.  I’m just stating that no judgement about CEO performance is simple, although they are often made that way.

Most CEOs do a good job and are appropriately managed by company boards in a fair and reasonable way, of course.  Glaring and notable cases where CEOs receive insane awards for mediocre performance or no punishment for failure (sometimes even rewards for failure) are the ones we hear about, though.  This is primarily the result of that fact that in the past, many (most?) companies, meaning the directors and shareholders of those companies, have not held their CEOs accountable to a reasonable degree.  They have mostly sat by and watched as the CEO has taken the company to new levels, augered it into the planet or really didn’t do much either way.

So what’s a poor CEO to do?  Well, until there is some universally applied standard for accountability and a commonly understood measure of performance, it is unlikely that there will be a rational and balanced view of how a CEO is actually doing over the long haul.  Perhaps, because it’s the sometimes irrational money of shareholders involved, there can never be a common standard and CEOs will continue to bask in glory one day only to be hung from the gallows the next.

From the CEO’s point of view, the odds of being evaluated correctly increase tremendously when decisions are made in thoughtful, considered ways.  That usually means that truly major decisions, with respect to the company’s size, are made with some level of involvement of the rest of the management team, company advisors and the company’s Board of Directors.  From the Board’s point of view, corporate directors need to always hold the CEO accountable for major decisions and company performance.  That doesn’t mean simply recognizing what happened, but teaching, rewarding, or punishing based on both the results and the process of what the CEO does. 

Yeah, even in a perfect world, it’ll still be an emotional roller coaster ride for the CEO, but that’s part of what makes the job interesting.  Being judged in virtually unpredictable ways in a sometimes irrational manner keeps things exciting <g>.

 June 30th, 2007  
 Will  
 Leadership  
   
 2 Comments