temerity, and a tip of the hat to a great fighter

Our wizard has vanished.Temerity – farewell to an American Great; Andy Roddick.

What impressed me wasn’t so much the U.S. Open Trophy in a niche in a side hallway., his intense workouts at a threadbare high school track or his no-nonsense practice sessions on a humble court carved out of a hillside. Rather, what touched me was how he cared, how he sweated the make-or-break details of his grassroots foundation and how he listened and lent support to his young wife who was then struggling in Hollywood.

Go figure.

The kid who was once half-boy and half-wizard was now caring, thoughtful, giving. Ultimately, Roddick was America’s warrior, a ferocious battler whose intensity sucked up all the oxygen in the room. You felt it in row Z.

Now it is hard to imagine the American game without our leader. But there is no choice. Like one of his 144 mph servers down the T. Austin Andy announced his retirement with speed and certainty – and all of a sudden, the American men’s game seems a bit of a blur.

Our wizard has vanished.

– Bill Simons, The Man Who Chased Geniuses, Inside Tennis, Nov/Dec 2012

a formidable code of honor, and was militarily and tactically superior to a number of Chinese and European naval commanders

http://www.badassoftheweek.com/chingshih.html

http://www.badassoftheweek.com/chingshih.html“Ching Shih assembled and ran one of the most formidable pirate armadas the world has ever seen. Her forces wreaked havoc not only among the merchant shipping population, but were also incredibly successful at going toe-to-toe with the Chinese Navy in large-scale sea battles. She was tough, well-respected, had a formidable code of honor, and was militarily and tactically superior to a number of Chinese and European naval commanders. And best of all, she was able to get away with everything, keep all of her loot and avoid suffering the indignity of a death by hanging.” – (via @AnonChingShih)

we’re not completely not termites

family

From the article:

The first dreams we ever had were to be held. And loved. And to explore this amazing world with love in our lives.

We dreamed of seeing, touching, and experiencing the world around us, with the happiness and comfort that comes from family.

As adults, many of us dream of building a family, and do so.

It’s the day-to-day realities that don’t always feel so dreamy. We get busy, exhausted, and overwhelmed. We’re changing diapers, cleaning up spills, searching for a jolt of caffeine to keep our eyes propped open until we can fall face first into a pillow.

Along the way, we sometimes see some work dreams take a back seat. We worry they may slip away, that we may never get back to them.

There are tough tradeoffs that moms and dads have to make every day. But since my son’s birth, I’ve stopped seeing those tradeoffs as sacrifice.

Because when we give up something for a time to make sure we’re putting enough focus into our families, we’re not giving up dreams. We’re committing to our biggest, deepest ones.

We’re prioritizing the dreams that make up who we are.

And “be the cups and ice” which is truly amazing.

Monica, in her usual fashion, takes over completely, leaving Phoebe in charge of only cups and ice. Phoebe decides to make the most of it; she makes everything imaginable out of cups, and serves every kind of ice.

So the next time Monica gives you cups and ice, just ask yourself, what would Phoebe do, and do that. It’s the hard way out. But worth it.

(Note: video added and minor edits Jan 18, 2016 while writing this post about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. – EGS)

Managing The Fire-Hose of Ideas

As the company has grown over the years, I have hit a number of tipping points that were unexpected and hurt the company. Bears AttackUnfortunately I have been unable to find a book that predicts these moments accurately and I know few people who have organically grown a 30+ employee 13 year old technology and marketing firm. We’re a bit odd. So while there are many sage leaders in the city of Houston, few have ever been “in my shoes” so to speak and most aren’t really sure what we do. In other words, sometimes I am flying blind and changes are clear only in hind sight. I am having one of those moments now and it involves ideas and a very motivated, skilled, enthusiastic and hard working group of employees.

The problem is ideas. Too many of them.

My management philosophy has always been the same. “Hire good people. Train the hell out of them. Let them run.” There can be problems with this. If you train them and they run off to a field to pick daisies, you fire them. But my experience has been that people are a LOT more motivated when they are given the tools and the freedom to do their jobs.

I once worked at a large corporation where I needed a Vice President’s sign off to get a $30 book I needed to do my job. And I had to write up a justification about why I needed the book. I called it a “pre-book-report” at the time. Anyway, I come from a family that consumes books like other people consume Doritos so this blew my mind. My manager, her boss, the VP and I spent way more than $30 in salaries debating the merits of said book. Most of which was made up because none of us had read it. So while the CEO said we were there to “maximize shareholder values” the rest of us didn’t get the memo. So I kept reading books and just paid for everything I needed out of my own pocket.

And I vowed I wouldn’t cripple my employees that way when years later I started a company.

Back to ideas. Thanks to our clients we get to eat. And we help them make a profit using our technology and processes. Everything is thanks to our clients. They expect and deserve the best possible service at the best possible value that we can deliver. That takes training. And I am committed to training. So far this year we sent 11 people to SXSWi, 2 people to SMX, 2 people to DrupalCon, 2 people to NTEN’s NTC, 2 people to the TSG Summit, 2 people to PyCon, we have 4 scheduled to attend Tufte, etc….  And it’s only March 19! Perhaps I shouldn’t share this because my competitors can see that the secret sauce over here is training. But I’m not that worried as investor led companies tend to maximize profits for the quarter and therefore lack the discipline and will to invest so heavily in training. Particularly if all of those expenses hit you in the same quarter.

Now, all of those employees are back from cities all across the United States and they are walking in to my office with idea after idea. After idea. After idea. And ideas are good. But it’s too much.

This is compounded because ideas are pretty cliche. You can’t patent an idea, you can only patent an implementation of an idea. Ideas only have value when you take action on them. It is results that create value, not ideas. Yet all of us in life want to provide the ideas and have them get done, usually by someone else. And we take it personal when someone shoots our idea down, and people know that, so the more ideas you throw out there the more people nod their heads in agreement. “Why yes, that is a good idea.” And it might be. But we’ll never know unless someone prioritizes it and commits the resources to implement the idea and then evaluates the results.

And some ideas are just bad. For example Ethan Watters expressed these emotions about one idea:

The idea of going to a Shriners meeting and listening to some high school student read her award-winning essay on the value of democracy seemed like an activity that I might encounter in the first ring of hell.

Nothing against the Shriners, but that is an idea that if you told me you were doing that I would say “hmmm, sounds interesting.” Yet I would be thinking: “No, that does NOT sound like a good idea for me and NO I do not want to test that idea.” But I wouldn’t say that.

A few years ago I judged a Tech-Transfer event for MBA students who presented a case on if an academic patent should be commercialized for the university where the research was done. I kid you not – this one patent was for a nanotech etching machine that was less than half the size and more expensive than one that was commercialized and in use in industry. It is hard not to look at that idea, shake your head, and think “was that just some dude who wanted to frame a patent for his wall?” I guess it’s academia so they have more wiggle room, but sheesh. This is an example of a bad idea that wasted time and money.

Testing ideas is expensive.

As a CEO your dream is someone walks up and says

“I had this idea so I prototyped it and the initial results look promising. Can we schedule a time to go over the results?”

And sometimes that happens. It really does. And those people get promoted at our company much faster than others. But more often than not you are presented with an idea like it is a sacred object and expected to immediately commit resources to test it. And there are simply too many ideas. And never enough resources.

(Sidebar: You actually get a LOT of innovation from the sales team (yes really) because they talk to prospects and see actual needs before people who only work with products we already support. Because no one within the company already knows X new product, a sales person with initiative will self install (read: prototype). That is how we started offering WordPress and Drupal as new product lines and THEY ARE GREAT!)

I was pondering the expense of organizing and testing all of these ideas while on a long walk with the dog this morning. A few possible solutions came to mind:

  1. Set up a DIGG type ranking system for idea submission and have employees vote the ideas up or down.
    1. They talk about this a little in Groundswell. But Idunno, I rarely see committees find the best possible idea. They usually blend everything until you get a compromised version of mush. Or whoever can write the best python script wins the vote. I love Amazon reviews, but I rarely write one. Does that mean my ideas don’t have value because I won’t use that particular tool?
  2. Require employees to write-up the idea and present it in an organized fashion at a scheduled time.
    1. This would stop the revolving door in my office of people presenting great ideas. Yet as I recently blogged about visionaries, it is the Eureka moments that lead to big discoveries. I am not sure a global “you must write it up” filter is in the best interest of the company.
  3. Schedule office hours.
    1. This is probably something I should do as a CEO as I am a little too accessible at times which prevents me from getting my work done. But again, will I miss a Eureka moment? What is it that I do that could possibly be more important than working with our employees?
  4. Say “no” to everything.
    1. Saying “no” to everything has actually worked well for me in the past. If the employee  isn’t motivated enough to overcome the first “no” then they aren’t that committed to the idea. Or so goes the thinking. But people are very different culturally. Extroverts ask me the same question 10 times while introverts won’t ask at all! Won’t this method bubble the “squeaky wheel” ideas up to the top? I doubt those are the best ones.
  5. Make them run it by their manager first.
    1. Otherwise known as the “hide behind hierarchy” method. Would this not break the spirit of an employee if they felt the CEO was inaccessible? What if they had an issue with their manager at a personal level, but had a good working relationship, but didn’t want to share? And do I really want to be the type of founder who is unwilling to talk to any employee? The answer to that is a resounding “no!” I spend more time with employees than I do with clients because I know developing our employees is what it takes to get to great customer satisfaction!

I’m at a loss here. I see we have hit this point. I feel like I am drinking from a firehose and I can’t keep up. While ideas alone are worthless, the implementation of a good idea has definite value!

My question to anyone who has made it this far in the post is “do you know of a system that has been tested and works for a CEO of a high growth company to handle employee ideas?” And I specifically do not want ideas. What I need is knowledge of a system that has been tested and works. Even if that system is a behavior modification on my part.

 

 

you can’t get that shot, but that shot was not the problem

Thoughts on excuses and accusations in leadership.

moss [[oak]menil]Back in College I played a lot of racquetball tournaments and played on the Texas A&M racquetball team. I also coached a few hours a week, sometimes kids, sometimes other students, at the local gyms in College Station Texas. Every once in a while when coaching a newbie who threw me a floater in the middle of the court I’d crush it down the line or do a nice splat. The student would invariably look at me as if I had done something wrong exclaiming:

How am I supposed to GET THAT!?!?! You killed it! I can’t get that!

My answer was always the same.

You can’t get that shot. Nobody can. But THAT shot was not the problem. It was the shot before where you set me up that was the problem. The kill shot was just the part that hurt. Identify the real cause before you howl in indignation. Now lets work on not setting your opponent up, OK?

Running a business over the years I have found that two commonly used fallacies by employees (and by me!) are post hoc and non sequitur. Both of which are Latin phrases and sound all funny to me. How do they relate to business?

Example: an employee is late day after day after day. You work with them. Go through the usual discipline rigmarole. Think thoughts like “wow, they need a parent not a manager.” And eventually the day comes when you hold them accountable. The response:

I was on a church retreat this weekend and overslept today. And if you put work over God that is YOUR problem not mine. You are way out of line to put work over God and family!

It’s important to remember that the employee in this scenario ACTUALLY BELIEVES what they are saying. At a human level it is a mind-blowingly insensitive accusation against a fellow human being, but that is besides the point. The catch here is that “it does not follow.” This particular day it is the presenting problem; the floating ball in the middle of the court. The real issue is that they are late day after day. The accusation that the manager is a heretic bound for hell is simply the presenting problem. You, the manager, did nothing wrong.

Yet the employee believes what they said!

In my experience there is only one solution. Educate them on fallacies and communication BEFORE they use them on you. It doesn’t always work, but at least it might. Education is the first step.  Because common fallacies are, well, common. Read on my fellow leaders, and cut yourself some slack. It really isn’t you. It was the shot where they set you up that caused the problem.

Candor in a Recession is Even MORE important

First a quote from Jack Welch on Candorbroken tracks by eschipul

“There’s still not enough candor in this company. [By that] I mean facing reality, seeing the world as it is rather than as you wish it were. We’ve seen over and over again that businesses facing market downturns, tough competition, and more demanding customers inevitably make forecasts that are much too optimistic. This means they don’t take advantage of the opportunities that change usually offers. Change in the marketplace isn’t something to fear; it’s an enormous opportunity to shuffle the deck, to replay the game. Candid managers – leaders – don’t get paralyzed about the fragility of the organization. They tell people the truth. That doesn’t scare them because they realize their people know the truth anyway.”

Jack Welch quoted on pg 120 of Absolute Honesty

I believe candor is particularly important for American businesses right now given we are in the middle of the great recessions. Officials continue to give us ridiculous platitudes (Bernake? Baroo?) when observations of the facts say otherwise (see Ghost Fleet of the Recession).

My observations of candor within our company over the last 12 years has been that the two biggest dangers and misuse of candor are:

  1. People who use candor as an excuse to be rude.
  2. People who falsely accuse others of using candor to be rude.

In my experience #2 is more dangerous as it is the most effective way for a squeamish or low performing person to combat candor within an organization. So don’t be rude. Yet also hold your ground on speaking the truth. It’s just that important. And as the quote says, “leaders – don’t get paralyzed about the fragility of the organization … because they realize their people know the truth anyway.”

Don’t Sandwich Constructive Feedback Because People Aren’t Stupid

The “Sandwich Method” of feedback was the first method of constructive criticism I learned as a young manager right out of university. You know it – 1) say something positive then 2) give the constructive criticism and then 3) close with a positive statement. Example:

Mary, you are doing a great job on the ACME Products account. But I hear your project team missed the deadline for the latest ACME blog release and the client is upset. And by the way, your hair looks nice today!

bunnyIt is true that a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down. The difference between the analogy of “sugar and medicine” and “sandwich feedback” is that medicine is “a” – not a person, “b” – good for your current illness only and “c” – not a long term human relationship. So with all of my focus on candor and directness for competitive business advantage, why then do I fall back to sandwich feedback methods?

Because the sandwich method is mostly about the person giving the feedback. It’s easier to give feedback in a sandwich because although you know you have to give the feedback, it is hard to give negative feedback. So the path of least resistance is to say nothing about an employee who is late. You say nothing until all of the other employees come to the conclusion the late employee is your favorite who gets paid to do less and can get away with anything. Silence indicts the leader.

One step up from ignoring the issue is the ineffective sandwich method. The domain of the partially courageous.

Why is the sandwich method of giving feedback so bad? Because people aren’t stupid. That’s right – if you work with stupid people you can probably use it forever. But it does NOT work with smart people. The authors of Absolute Honesty explain it this way:

people aren’t stupid and if you always deliver feedback in a sandwich, they start to realize that the purpose of the message is the zinger in the middle. They then start doubting your truthfulness about any of the good things when you tell them because they’re always wondering when the zinger will come.

and

Not that there is anything wrong with acknowledging someone’s strengths when giving feedback – we just think it’s better to avoid making a sandwich and get to the point. – pg 91

and

Experience has shown us that, when giving criticism, the direct approach is the best as long as it’s given in an environment where positive feedback is abundant. – pg 92

To repeat, if you use the sandwich method of giving feedback then people will ignore the good things you say waiting for the negative. And they think of you as a minor league liar for saying positive things you probably don’t believe (even if you do!). So get to the point. Give lots of positive feedback on a daily basis. But when giving negative feedback say it and move on. And keep it discrete from positive feedback.

“You need fast dialog and fast conversation to get at the mission. Candor.” – Jack Welch 2005, Houston Forum

and

“From the day I joined GE to the day I was named CEO, twenty years later, my bosses cautioned me about my candor. I was labeled abrasive and consistently warned my candor would soon get in the way of my career. … and I’m telling you that it was candor that helped make it work.” – Jack Welch, Winning, Pg 34

And in closing – candor is the way to move up in a competitive organization. Especially one fighting off the great recession. Not rudeness mind you, but honest candor where you respectfully call things the way you see them. You don’t waste time with sandwich feedback loops so folks know you are honest. By speaking directly you are treating people respectfully. People believe your compliments and they respect your feedback. Honest.

Collins: The Five Key Things to Consider When Looking for the Right People

The following are my notes from listening to Jim Collin‘s audio coaching on “getting the right people on the bus.”

From Jim Collins: The Five Key Things to Consider When Looking for the Right People

“What are the characteristics of the right people? Are there any generic characteristics we are looking for in the right people.” … “As I see it, there are five basic characteristics, five basic criteria, for being a “right person on the bus”

  1. They must share the core values.
    1. “The person must share the core values of the institution or the organization you are building.”
    2. “You can’t get people to share your core values.”
    3. “The whole task is to find people who already have a predisposition to your core values…They must share the core values… those who do not have a predisposition to sharing the core values get ejected like a virus. Get escorted out the door by the organizational antibodies.”
  2. A right person on the bus is not someone that you need to manage.
    1. The moment you feel the need to manage somebody, or tightly manage somebody, you’ve probably made a hiring mistake. … that is one of your key clues that you might have the wrong person on the bus.
    2. The moment you feel the need to manage somebody, you’ve probably made a hiring mistake.
  3. Could they be the best in the industry in that seat?
    1. In the seat that they hold, could they potentially be one of the best in the industry … in that particular seat? It doesn’t mean they actually “are” the best, but at least possible that they could eventually become one of the best
  4. The Individual understands the difference between having a job and holding a responsibility.”
    1. “My assistant Vicky gets this so well… “If you were an air traffic controller and you did your job and you did all the right things but the planes still crashed, would it matter? No, it wouldn’t matter… You have a responsibility that goes far beyond having a job. …  the responsibility to worry three steps ahead to ensure that the planes don’t crash.
    2. That sense of “I have a broader sense of responsibility” rather than “I have a job” the ability to get that distinction is one of the crucial dimensions of the right people on the bus.Tthey are what I would describe as productively neurotic. If they see a hole they feel the need to fill it and to make it better.
  5. If it were a hiring decision all over again, given everything you know having worked with this person, would you still hire?
    1. This is the litmus test question.
  6. Lastly – You must be fair.
    1. And fair in the following sense. Always ask yourself the following question. Do you have a “bus problem” or do you have a “seat problem”. It could be you have a wonderful great person on the bus but you made a managerial mistake and put that right person in the wrong seat?” “When in doubt, be fair.”

Of course he makes it sound so simple. Having been hiring and (unfortunately) firing people since my very first job out of college, I know all too well how hard it is to interview. The advice given on hiring people is always “do lots of interviews” and “slow down the process until you are sure.” Which sounds great, except not every good job applicant will go through 10 interviews and wait six months for an offer. In other words the market varies. And quite frankly you can’t always tell.

I have learned to be wary of certain groups of job applicants in the hiring process.

  1. The prideful.
    1. Prideful people do dumb things to save face. The humble will just go “damn, I screwed that up. But I learned.” The prideful will make a bad decision and then defend it to the bitter end in front of the entire company before they admit a mistake. Humble people rule.
  2. Those that tell you they are smart.
    1. Um… you are an adult. If you have to tell me you’re smart in the first five minutes of the interview something is wrong. Those silly tests only test about a third of your actual knowledge, and if that is a prop for your ego we have a problem. Tell me you are a hard worker, tell me about results, but don’t tell me you’re smart. Sheesh. What you really want is a humble hard worker who lets their work product shout about how awesome they are while their own words are quiet.
    2. Interesting conversation about telling if someone is smart here.
  3. The insecure.
    1. The most dangerous group of all. The insecure turn on you unexpectedly and like a mine field they can lay in wait for 50 years before going off. The insecure follow a leader instead of their own hard coded core values. As such they jump ship when a leader trips, and every leader must take risks and therefore WILL trip. The leader will get back up, but the mine goes off.
    2. Sometimes a leader can expedite discovery by intentionally appearing to make a mistake. But be careful.
    3. The insecure are also the most likely to rationalize unethical behavior.

There is no easy answer to hiring and firing, or to determining “which seat on the bus” a person is most qualified for. And timing also matters, a person may outgrow a position and a position can outgrow a person. Sometimes the person is so good you just need to put them on the bench, let them sit in the wrong seat for a little while before the right seat comes available. These are heavy decisions.

Having to make these decisions, one thing I am personally committed to is the development of my people. While I can’t control the economy or stop acts of God, I can ensure that no matter what my people are as prepared as possible for whatever lies ahead. Training and growing our team is within my circle of influence.

Donaton on Verklin Contradicts Measurable Branding Results Online

Scott Donaton, the editor of Advertising Age just wrote an article gushing over what a visionary leader David Verklin is.

Will someone other than David Verklin please stand up?

I mean, really, is there a single other human being who has been as much of a leader, visionary, a force for change and a voice of optimism industries over the last 15 years? The answer is no, and that’s remarkable, as a statement on Verklin’s talents and as shameful commentary on the leadership vacuum.

So, being a student of leadership and branding both, I wanted to check out Mr. Verklin’s company to see how a visionary’s company presents the brand online. While I have no doubt Mr. Verklin is indeed an amazing visionary leader, I also have no doubt that he has NOT held his people accountable for baseline branding on the web. Why do I say this? Because I can’t find the site in google BY NAME, which to most of us is a completely fair measure of half-hearted-capabilities.

Specifically I wanted to find the Carat America site. I googled it as "Carat America". By brand name no less.
http://www.google.com/search?hl=en&lr=&q=Carat+America
I get a portfolio listing but not one on their site or even a listing for their company.

Then I tried "Carat Verklin"
http://www.google.com/search?hl=en&lr=&q=Carat+Verklin
I get a media week listing but not the company site. Ironically the article is about eyes shifting to media dollars.

After numerous searches and finding the Carat Group site (not Americas but the main group – I realize that) I ran a keyword density analyzer on the site trying to figure out how it was possible that they did not come up at all. First, they have a redirect on the home page which gave even the density analyzer an error. Then I tried the redirected subpage and got this:

Single Words
Occurrence: 4
keyword count density score
carat 1 25.00 1
enter 1 25.00 3
global 1 25.00 3
site 1 25.00 3

That is the complete report. All of it.

BY clicking "services" I got a long URL which at least had some content.
http://www.carat.com/carat/IntranetDocViewer?wsDocTypeId=0&wsScreenType=90&wsRow=1&wsCol=3&wsDepth=1&wsBI=null
Note that it does not say the word advertising at all and only says "media" once on the page. Television, brand and interactive are also missing.  Who wrote this stuff?

I am glad Mr. Verklin is getting some nice press. But the arrogance of big media assuming everyone will find them, that people will jump through hoops to track them down, smacks of cluetrain type big business arrogance and nothing less than brand foolishness.

Ad Agencies need to hold their people accountable for online branding results, and that includes making sure your site is found in the search engines. To hire creative people who count on you, and to ignore the media landscape, to ignore online branding and then lay everyone off and say "hey, I guess there was a slow down" like so many agencies do, is irresponsible. It is bad for the brand, and definitely bad for the people. It is arrogance and arrogance doesn’t play.