147 posts categorized "Leadership"

August 21, 2014

Do You Have the Courage To Mentor Up?

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Mentorship is an opportunity to build relationships and give gifts. Mentoring up, to those above you in rank or stature, may be one of your best career boosters. Really. This post will show you how to do it without getting shot for the message. 

There's a common misconception in our business culture that mentorship is a top-down activity. In The Hero's Journey, the mentor is often case as the Wise Old Man or the Wise Old Woman. Think Obi Wan Kenobi in Star Wars or Miyagi in The Karate Kid. In this theory, one must have achieved success to pass on wisdom to the young or the new. 

If you actually research the origins of the mentor, however, you'll find a different story. According to the fabulous writer's tool The Writer's Journey by Christopher Vogler,  "the name 'Mentor', along with our word 'mental', stems from the Greek word for mind, 'menos', a marvelously flexible word that can mean intention, force or purpose.  Menos also means courage."

He illustrates why courage can be required to mentor: "Many of the Greek heroes were mentored by the centaur Chiron, a prototype for all Wise Old Men and Women. A strange mix of man and horse, Chiron was foster-father and trainer to a whole army of Greek heroes including Hercules, Actaeon, Achilles, Peleus and Aesculapius, the greatest surgeon of antiquity. In the person of Chiron, the Greeks stored many of their notions about what it means to be a Mentor. Chiron was not always well rewarded for his efforts. His violence prone pupil Hercules wounded him with a magic arrow which made Chiron beg the gods for the mercy of death."

Here's the idea: When you mentor others, you are a provider of knowledge to assist them in their journey. Regardless of their seniority, you do this because they need the help and no one knows everything.  This is especially true when times are filled with disruptive changes.  

In my experience, mentoring up has been a tool to build powerful relationships and a source of inspiration for my continual learning. When I worked at broadcast.com (1997-1999) and Yahoo (1999-2005), the Information Age was just taking hold. I poured myself into books and trade publications that gave me insights on topics such as eCommerce, permission marketing, digital technology and new media. I became wise beyond my experience in years.  

When I had opportunities to sit with legacy leaders such as Howard Stringer at Sony or Jim Keys at 7-11 or Mike Rawlings at Pizza Hut, I mentored them on the new world of Internet enabled business. I shared insights from books, case studies from trade journals as well as my perspective on "how the new world would work." 

At first, much like Hercules, some of them pushed back hard. One leader wrapped up our conversation within five minutes and reacted dismissively to my suggestions. I apologized via an email and sent him a book that underscored the point I was making about the disruptive nature of eCommerce. I included my cliff notes from the book.  Within a month, he invited me back and included his VP staff in the meeting. Eventually we did millions of dollars of business together. 

I've also had the audacity to mentor my managers and even executives a few clicks above me. By mentorship, I mean that I shared information and perspectives that I felt would assist someone in solving a problem or gaining a strategic insight. Usually, it was a single point or observation, backed up by experts or statistics. I knew that because I was mentoring up, I couldn't just make an assertion based on my experience. Only the Wise Old Tim could get away with that. It led to strengthened relationships and in one case, a champion who enabled me to become the Chief Solutions Officer of Yahoo!.  

Today, you have a unique opportunity to mentor up. It might be to your customers, prospects or your bosses or executives. The world is changing fast. Digital/Cloud/Mobile/Social/Global forces disrupt business in a compressed period of time. Whether or not your superiors (I use that term loosely) know they need it, information if required for their continued success. 

Or as George Clooney's character in Our Brother Where Art Thou often said, "When times are tough, people are looking for answers." 

Here's how to mentor up without getting hurt: 

* Gather knowledge. Lots of it. Become a knowledge pack rat. If you tell someone something they already know, it's not mentorship. If you fully commit to this, others will sense it as you share with them and be more receptive. 

* Seek first to understand, then to be understood: This nugget of wisdom from Dr. Stephen Covey applies here. You need to listen to your superiors to understand what they already know, what they fear and then what they need to know. If you jump in too quickly, you may offend or worse, miss the mark completely. When mentoring up, you likely have one chance to impress. 

* Make sure you are helping a benevolent hero. I've always looked for superiors that I respected and trusted to be the-bigger-person in any conversation. Every time I mentored up, I really wanted those legacy leaders to succeed and admired their past accomplishments. If I sensed they were mean spirited or overly defensive, I kept my trap shut. Remember Hercules. 

* Be respectful and follow up with proof. No one is ignorant or stupid just because he or she isn't yet calibrated to the times. There is a knowledge gap that needs to be filled. While he may not know how to use social media or why digitization is a threat to the core business, he can likely run circles around you in areas like finance, strategy or operations.  

I'm aware of the concept of reverse mentoring, where a senior leader asks for help. But this is a different concept all together, because it's the junior leader that takes the initiative. And that's why it's so much more impactful. 

If you follow these simple rules, you'll enable yourself to become closer to leaders that will help you on your journey too. My mentorship efforts to Stanley Marcus Jr. in the area of eCommerce led to him sharing insights with me about Customer Relationship Management and Talent Experience Design. As he told me in our last lunch meeting, "You'll never get dumber by making others smarter."  


August 07, 2014

Great Leaders Can Change the Subject

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Your work culture is a conversation, led by leaders or troublemakers, about how things are done around here.  If the leader isn't driving the conversation forward, troublemakers can move it sideways or backwards.  Troublemakers include the naysayers, doomsdayers and taker-types.  

Much of our work life is spent in conversations with others. When these conversations move forward, we make progress. When they go sideways, confusion reigns. When they slide backward, conflict and negative emotions ensue.

“Conversation is a game of circles,” wrote Ralph  Waldo Emerson. In other words, a conversation is useful but often is complicated by each player’s agenda. And yet, through this highly interactive process, we shape our attitudes and beliefs.  That's why it's important for leaders to take charge of the conversation.  

Too many conversations at work are moving everyone in the wrong direction. They can be historical, bringing up old-and-outdated subjects.  This leads to a collective hangover, where we can't shake off the weight of our past failures or the phantom menace of a long faded competitor.  There are conversations which exchange gossip information, usually about people.  Gossip is the fast-food of workplace conversation and often reduces its participants to base level thinking.  

The most paralyzing conversations are led by the Chicken Littles, who drum up fear through declarations that "the sky is falling."  They have the blogosphere and big media as their stronghold, and often punch much bigger than their weight.  All of these conversations must be led by leaders to a better place. 

One way that leaders can change the conversation is to directly challenge the historian, gossip or Chicken Little.  One manager who attended one of my talks took this to heart.  "When I spot a Chicken Little spinning up his coworkers unnecessarily, I ask him where he's coming from: Fear or confidence.  I use the experience to coach him on the difference between constructive information and fear-mongering."  

A second approach is to divert the conversation forward.  One way to do that is to reframe the bad news as an instant brain-storm about what each conversational participant can do about it.  Focus on the solution, not the problem. You can introduce a connected issue that leads to a discussion about a current project that everyone can contribute to.  You could simply introduce a progressive subject and drive the conversation towards it and away from the previously bad one.  While this requires finesse, great leaders have the strength to drive the conversation forward.  Each. And. Every. Time. 

Ignoring a sideways conversation is not an option.  Like a sore, they fester without your attention and often bubble up as a collective malaise.  Your job is to find the balance between empathy at a personal level and leadership at a conversational level.  

This comes from Principle Two from Today We Are Rich: Move the Conversation Forward. 


August 01, 2014

Why Today’s Leader Needs the Agility of a Downhill Skier

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Read any recent white paper on leadership, and you'll see numerous references to agility as a key area for development.  From learning agility to innovation agility, it's clear that leaders need to focus on how to go fast but stay graceful.  

Prior to my recent talk on this subject at a leadership conference, I conducted research to uncover why agility has become so critical to success.  The answer was quite simple: The time it takes for a new business concept or technological innovation to disrupt and industry is compressing ... fast.  What took a decade to wreck and industry in the 60's takes a little more than two years today.  

Think about how fast smart phone apps have disrupted various industries that manufactured one-off devices (guitar tuners, navigational devices, watches, video cameras, cameras, and so on).  Think about how fast Uber has disrupted transportation.  How fast has AirBnB disrupted hospitality?  This is why I call today's leadership a downhill ski-sprint where one must go fast, stay on their feet and not crash too many gates.  Even in non-tech industry like consumer packaged goods, we've seen concepts like GMO-free products take hold in a fraction of the time it took for organic-and-local to achieve traction.  This is what life for a leaders looks like today:  Slide1

To survive, the leader must be on the ready to move his or her enterprise in a novel direction to capture an opportunity or defend their customer base.  But the risks are high, when fast-to-market is the paradigm, so often times people talk about being nimble but still hold steady until it's too late.  I believe that agility is a capability we build up through practice, just like a champion skier perfects their ability to make it down the hill in record time in one piece.  Here are a few ways you can boost your agility: 

  1. Read Voraciously About the Future - Readers are more agile leaders, especially when they widely expand their knowledge base every year.  If you commit yourself to reading one book every month cover-to-cover that outlines the future of your industry or technology related to your industry, you'll find yourself more confident and inspired about change.  You'll also develop key insights, which can help you create solutions faster and implement them better. 
  2. Develop Habit of Brainstorming When Faced With a Challenge - To often, our first instinct is to look for safe/proven off-the-shelf solutions to business problems.  Agile leaders start with brainstorming to consider novel approaches.  Over time, the more you make that your first response, the easier it will be to let go of the status quo when the writing's on the wall. 
  3. Protect Your Psyche - Being a change agent is like playing Whack-A-Mole ... where you are the mole!  You'll receive criticism and ocasionaly crash in an attempt to take a corner quickly.  Don't be defensive as research indicates that will get you lower marks from your managers or board.  See every piece of criticism as a gift that gives you valuable information about the person delivering it to you or in some cases, about the quality of your ideas or execution.  
  4. Create A Sprint Culture - This starts with meetings.  Cut down 2 hour meetings to 40 minute sprints.  Replace long lunches with Ted-Talk length speed-round sessions (18 minutes).  Reduce the time you give your team to implement project deliverables from 90 days to 2 weeks.  Conduct hackathons (all nighters) to compress a few weeks work into a single day.  All of these actions will drive speed into your collective psyche and make it easier for you and your team to run faster over time without falling down too much. 
  5. Invest An Hour a Week Reflecting On How Your Ideas Play Out - Be an objective person when looking back at market or organization reactions to your new ideas.  Objectify failure, because it's not really a reflection of your nature or character.  The more you think this way about the agile you, the better you'll adjust your plans to develop more finesse.  That's the key to passing through and not over the gates of innovation.  

I'd love to come speak on Leadership and Agility at your event.  Contact me for more information or suggest me to your speaking bureau agent.  


July 23, 2014

The Changing Face Of Leadership

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What it takes to succeed as a leader has been redefined by changes in the workforce and mega trends. Gen Y is more motivated by identity, mastery and purpose than they are by money, power and stability.  Tech-Globalism accelerates the rate of change, be it in consumer attitudes, retail habits and government regulatory actions.  As the world gets faster and deeper, leaders will face unique challenges, requiring a retooling of the traditional hierarchical models of yesteryear.   

Leadership development needs to change, adjusting to these trends.  According to a paper published by the Center for Creative Leadership, the required skills for leaders have changed – requiring more adaptive thinking abilities.  They summed up the challenge, “There is a transition occurring from the old paradigm in which leadership resided in a person or a role, to a new one in which leadership is a collective process that is spread throughout networks of people.”

Here are five areas of leadership development for the future: 

1. Influence – Leaders must move their charges to action by aligning them with the company’s values.  Influence is the key to building strong culture, which is quickly becoming as important as strategy to global organizations.  Command and control are outdated tools in this regard, and instead new skills must be attained such as empathy, story telling and system wide mentorship.  To be competitive, power and innovation must be dispersed throughout the organization.  Leaders today must ask the right questions, encourage the right people and move the conversation forward.  Resource – Influence: The Essence of Leadership  

2. Finesse – Napoleon Bonaparte often said that the leader’s role is to “define reality, then give hope.”  His point was that there is a precarious balance that must be struck between the challenges of the day, and the promise of tomorrow.  This requires a sense of emotional talent or finesse.  Leaders need to feed their mind the right stuff, so they can respond to adversity with innovative thinking.  They need to possess clear communications channels with managers, to understand assets that can quickly be brought to bear when adversity strikes.  When they implement them, they need to balance the emotional and financial impacts it will have on the enterprise.   Resource: Fall of the Alpha Leaders by Dana Ardi

3. Agility – Business cycles has compressed from decades into years. Technology driven industry changes require legacy companies to radically shift their strategies, adopt emerging technologies and kill off out-of-date models.  Consumers are empowered with information now, changing how they buy and influence others.  Not only does the leader need to be agile, she must effectively hire for it and make it the linchpin of employee development practices.   Sticking with your guns is a recipe for defeat.  Resource: Learning Agility by the Creative Center of Leadership 

4. Creativity – In an IBM study 1500 CEOs named the most important skill of the future leader as creativity.  It is one’s ability to produce original work that is appropriate to the situation.  Today’s leader must expand her level of curiosity to uncover patterns of behavior that reveal new routes to value or innovations.  She must develop a tolerance for ambiguity – the hallmark of the creative thinker.  Moreover, she must manage a culture that encourages innovation, along with candor.  She must neutralize the naysayers.  Resource: Creativity Inc. by Ed Catmul 

5. Higher Purpose – Nothing motivates tomorrow’s talent more than a sense of purpose and the belief that one’s work makes a difference to the world.  While a company needs to make a profit to keep the doors open, it’s not going to motivate the entire company to take chances, finish tasks in the face of adversity and serve as brand ambassadors on social media and in the real world.  Leaders must constantly look for a higher purpose that the business serves, and empower their entire company to participate to that end.  Resource – Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates People by Dan Pink

(From my upcoming keynote address at the Womens Foodservice Forum New Orleans.) 


May 29, 2014

The Three Flavors Of Mentorship

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The concept of mentor first appeared in Homer's Odyssey, and since then has grown into a widely talked about concept.  Many of us seek mentors, especially during the beginning of our career. Many of us act as mentors, helping others on their journey to greatness. 

What I've learned through my mentorship practice is that not all engagements are the same.  There are three distinct flavors: 

  • Flash Mentor - You encounter someone that lacks a piece of information you possess.  You give it on the spot, without any requirements for follow up.  This is my favorite flavor, and I practice it often.  To many, this is called knowledge sharing.  It's fast, friendly and can lay the foundation for a working relationship. 
  • Program Mentor - You are either asked to be someone's mentor or you spot a hero that needs some wisdom for his or her journey.  This is a more formal situation, where the mentor clearly spells out the objectives and curriculum.  When Stanley Marcus Jr. mentored me, this was his style.  He made it clear that I was going to learn leadership in the context of fostering customer-relationships at Yahoo.  Our program would be delivered over ten lunches, and I would have homework.  This is a great way to go beyond sharing information and instead, sharing your perspectives.  
  • Life Long Mentor - In this case, the relationship never ends.  Usually, you have significantly more life experience than the mentee, and have developed a personal interest in his or her success.  You want to provide ongoing encouragement and if possible, be a part of his or her journey.  In my case, my grandmother Billye served that role.  One should be very careful about taking this on, though, as it's a big promise to make. 

Pick your mentees wisely.  Don't promise what you can't deliver.  The best time to deliver Flash Mentorship is when the opportunity presents itself.  Carpe Diem!  In many cases, you start out as a Flash Mentor and over time, you take on either Program or Life Long mentees.  

All of us should practice one flavor of mentorship every single week.  If you haven't found the opportunity, you either aren't looking hard enough OR you aren't feeding your mind enough to share.  


February 28, 2014

Leaders: It's Time To Shift Out Of Neutral and Hit the Gas!

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For many of you, the last recession put you into survival mode.  This is especially true if you are in banking, financial services, construction, retail or automotive.  Those industries were hit so hard, all growth plans had to take a back seat.

Shrinking expenses was the order of the day. 

As long as we continue to watch cable news (CNBC, etc.) or let the doomsdayers continue to beat the drums of double dip or next-bubble, we'll stay in neutral, letting our competitors pass us by.  

Here's my analogy: A downturn is like a car crash during a NASCAR race.  The yellow caution flag comes out, we all coast in the same position.  At some point the green flag is waved and everyone scrambles for the lead.  

Here's where business turns out differently: The "game on" flag is invisible, just like the hand of the market that Adam Smith wrote about.  Some leaders see it early and others see it too late.  In 2009, a New Yorker article (Hanging Tough) isolated some of the great leaps in history that were made by companies that got back to growth, innovation and employee development before their competitors. When they saw the green flag, just as the worst of the crash was over, they hit the gas.  Kraft, Kellogg's, Hyundai and Apple are all examples of this phenomenon. 

Here's a news flash for you: The recession is over.  The run up is on.  If you wait for any more of a clear sign, the next downturn may be upon you and there's nothing left in your tank.  It's time for you to think about growing your business, buying companies and investing heavily in your talent.  

As one leader recently told me, "By the time you realize you should have been focusing on growth, it's too late.  Your competitors have been doing it long enough to build up not only a lead, but barriers to you being able to draft on their success."  


February 12, 2014

Here's What Business Strategy Is Really All About (review)

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Recently, I was booked to give the closing keynote at an annual corporate meeting for an industry leader.  Their CEO had a vision for the meeting: Create A Mindset Where Winning Is the Only Acceptable Outcome.  She picked me because I'd worked at a company (Yahoo) that famously developed this outlook, then lost it over time. 

I was intrigued by this assignment, and immediately thought of lessons learned from studying Paul Galvin of Motorola (video clip from one of my talks about him).  Researching post-Galvin case studies led me to A.G. Lafley's days at Procter and Gamble and ultimately his book, Playing To Win: How Strategy Really Works.

Lafley believes that strategy is "an integrated set of choices about how to win in the marketplace." In other words, strategy is not about accomplishing a certain task or reaching a certain goal.  Those are tactics.  Being strategic is about making the hard choices to achieve a sustainable competitive advantage in the eyes of customers.  

He's got an attitude about leaders that see it any other way.  He picks on companies like Saturn, a GM division, that was 'Playing for the sake of playing.'  They never intended on beating the Japanese at their game.  They just wanted to sell cars in 'the low end of the market,' so Saturn was created.  They were not resourced to outperform Toyota, Honda, Nissan, Kia or Hyundai, and eventually, the division was shuttered.  

He's even harder on leaders that Play To Survive.  In his view, "a company must seek to win in a particular place and in a particular way.  If it doesn't seek to win, it is wasting the time of its and the investments of its capital providers."  He's right too.  Around 2003, I witnessed the Yahoo culture shift from winning to "hanging in there".  This was the beginning of the sideways years for the company. We watched competitors like Google leapfrog us with moonshots (Google Earth), while we played it safe by incrementally improving products (Click To Print Map).  

Over and over again, Lafley stresses the choices leaders must make in their strategy.  The first choice is 'What is our winning aspiration?' which leads to a cascade of choices which build on each other.

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I like this cascade (based on the work of Michael Porter, one of Lafley's mentors).  It starts with our aspiration or purpose, which according to Jim Collins, should be audacious.  Lafley points out that "too many companies eventually die a death of modest aspirations."  They made modest choices that the beginning of the strategy cascade, which then led to market-mediocrity.

Then, the second strategic choice is location - where are we going to win?  This narrows the market, sometimes to a specific niche where a true winning opportunity lies.  Narrowing the market is a hard choice for many, making it even more strategic. But to narrow the market is to narrow the scope of competition as well - making it easier to win.

The next difficult choice has to do with our weapons in the market, the sources of our competitive advantage.  In Lafley's view, they need to relate to the perceived value the company delivers to its most important customers.  Then, the next choice is about which resources need to be marshaled to deliver that competitive advantage over time.  Finally, choices about management systems are made to ensure a high degree of operating excellence.  This is a great exercise for any business leader or entrepreneur thinking through their strategy.  Each choice is limiting, and serves to give the company a true sense of focus. 

One of his stinging points is that "Too many leaders define strategy as the optimization of the status quo." In his view, this leads to sameness, which is not a strategy but "a recipe for mediocrity." 

To Lafley's cascade, I added a six element: How Do We Close Value Gaps? This is based on the work of Sandra Vandermerwe in her book Customer Capitalism.  Stanley Marcus Jr. told me about this book back in 1999 when he was sharing a case study about the Mercedes Smart Car launch in Europe.  

The idea is that you can't lock in a customer anymore with contracts or proprietary technology.  Your efforts to do so have decreasing returns over time.  The key to winning over time is to get the customer to lock on to your company that solving all their problems in the activity space.  For Mercedes' Smart car launch, the activity space they focused on was short haul mobility.  The car was designed for trips up to about 100 kilometers at most.  For such a specific activity focus, there are obviously value gaps that they need to close: Repair, Renting a bigger car, Insurance, Maintenance and so on.  

Here's the idea: Each value gap is an opportunity for a competitor to enter your customer's life and steal them.  If you've rented a car at Avis, for example, you likely drove a GM product such as a Malibu or an Impala.  If you drive another brand, that's an example of a value gap they didn't close, which might lead you to switch later.  Mercedes anticipated this in their strategy, so they provided rental car services to close that gap.  

ValueGap

For my keynote, I used a more contemporary example from the medical care industry.  For Baxter Healthcare's Renal Bag product line, they built a strategy around the activity space of maintaining kidney health.  As they built a wining strategy, they realized that the customer has pre-during-post needs.  Up until then, they only played in the 'during' phase, where their bags were part of treatment. 

From pre-treatment advice to post-treatment therapy, Baxter had value gaps a competitor could drive a truck through - dropping off samples of a competitive core product.  So the team built or partnered their way into an airtight approach to the market, which served the activity space with their product serving as a piece of the puzzle and not a commodity. 

  BaxterCC

My audience was intrigued and provoked into action at the same time.  Several focused on choice #2 (where do we win?) and #6 (how do we close value gaps?) as key questions to answer quickly in order to protect their winning hand.  

My closing words echoed Lafley's perspective: If you are not playing to win, at best case, you are losing a little more each day. It's a matter of tough choices about the things that matter ... to the customer.  


November 15, 2013

The Best Way To Deal With Your Fears: Put Them In Order

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Often, we are told to dismiss or ignore fear.  Or, we are admonished to overcome it … whip it down! In reality, those tonics almost always fail to quell that worry that eats away at us.

Fear is often cast as a bad thing, never to be fed or encouraged.  But that is an oversimplification.  Fear comes in many flavors, driven by its source.  Some sources are healthy, some are illusionary and others are destructive.  That’s right, some fears are quite healthy for your sense of balance.

Fear is the acknowledgement of a formidable threat and substantial stakes.  If you don’t really think it can hurt you, you aren’t afraid.  If it doesn’t matter, you can sluff it off as a casual concern.  If you lack ANY fear, in many situations, you aren’t dealing with reality or you are overconfident.  By recognizing the constructive fears, you’ll find proper direction.

For example, when consultants or journalists asked former Yahoo CEO Tim Koogle ‘what kept him up at night’ in 1999, he would reply, ‘two college kids in an apartment, tapping out code that will disrupt the industry.’ In other words, he feared irrelevance.  It was a legitimate fear too, as Google was being hatched on the Stanford campus at that exact time.

On the other hand, I’ve worked for several CEOs that put more of their energy against the fear of failure.  They worried that the proposed product might not sell well, giving them a black eye to investors.  They worried that shifting to the new technology platform might lead to downtime, alienating legacy customers.  Were these fears legit? In all situations, the greatest risk wasn’t a botched release or a short outage in services. It was competitive innovation. 

The best way to manage fear in your life is to prioritize them by their legitimacy and urgency.  The healthiest fear for a modern day business leader is obsolescence.  As Koogle pointed out to me, “for every company that goes down due to a few bad product SKUs or sloppy accounting, there are nineteen that die a sudden death because their customers flee to the new-new thing.” 

Takeaway: Your fear of getting lapped in the marketplace should be the one you pay attention to and lose sleep over.  If you want to be a modern day innovator, your fear of obsolescence should be greater than your fear of failure.  

What do you do with these fears?  Face the worst case, and resolve to do better than it.  Deploy resources to overcome its source (competitive innovation).  Talk about it as a burning platform to your colleagues. 

For more, watch this video clip from 2005 where I share Tim Koogle's insights and the Paul Galvin story. "Do not fear mistakes.  Wisdom comes from them!" 


September 27, 2013

You Need To Do This At Your Organization From Day One

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Earlier this year, I was sitting around a table of successful entrepreneurs, listening to them talk about lessons learned in startup world.  One founder would soon sell his company for almost two hundred million dollars and the person sitting across from him had just successfully raised one hundred million bucks from Silicon Valley VCs.  These two cats knew their stuff. 

"If you could change anything about how you built your business, what would it be?" the recently funded CEO asked.  

"I would have built culture from day one," replied the soon-to-be-swimming in dollars CEO.  "Just like Tony did at Zappos, start with culture then layer on a strategy.  If you wait until 20 people, it's probably too late.  If you wait until 100 people, you'll need to clean house unless you've been very lucky in recruiting people that are naturally tuned into your values."  Deep.  

Last week, I gave a keynote at Foundercon, an annual leadership event for Tech Stars alumns. (If you haven't read Do More Faster, you should grab it right away.)  Along with sharing my perspective from Love Is the Killer App, I talked to them about the critical importance of prioritizing the building of culture.  My message was that when culture builds itself, the buildings look like silos - not a collaborative web.  

I believe that culture is a conversation about "how we do things here." Most culture is centered on how team members relate to each other as well as the outside world.   The leaders initiate the conversation, then punctuate it with action.  They don't hire people that don't fit the culture and they reward the ones that do in succession planning.  It's all done very publicly, often talked about and frequently marketing at a visual level. (Signs of "Done Is Better Than Perfect" were everywhere at young facebook.) 

Whether you are starting a company, church or a team, if you want to lead, be on top of the conversation.  The value of culture building lies in Henry Chesbrough's definition of the concept: "A set of values, properly expressed and enforced, that creates a system of social control." If the culture is strong, every team member knows exactly what to do, even when the leaders aren't there to tell them.  If the culture is about transparency, information is disclosed when asked for. If it's about putting the customer first, then refunds with no questions asked are given by associates, even before it becomes a codified policy. 

Here's the three keys to building culture, even with a small group: 

1.  Choose a few values that define the purpose of your business.  Make sure they are based on helping people or solving their problems.  Choose values you can get a teenager and a grand parent excited about.  HINT: "Maximizing shareholder returns" is a really lame value statement.  Sounds like a corporate conglomorate, which is fine for investors...but they are gone after they write the check...you need talent, partners and fans. 

2. Adopt rituals to promote your values, and integrate them into the fabric of your group.  Not just signs or placards, you need to plan events or choreograph group behavior around values.  If you value collaboration, have a Friday beer bust and be mindful of messaging.  If you value customer experience, host an annual gathering of them to open your ears and iterate.  Saturn automobile used this ritual to build relationships with customers, and at the same time, to cement their values around creating a wow experience for customers.

3. Use these values to make hiring, budgetary, firing and rewards decision.  If you are working at an established company, but fear that you need to re-build culture -- you'll likely need to let a few people go that don't fit.  Words may resonate, but actions motivate others to buy-in. 

What are your organization's values?  How are you driving them into the conversation?  Would love to hear about it in comments.  


August 28, 2013

This Is the Only Way Your Company Has A Fighting Chance

Disruption-is-a-process
A few weeks ago, I retweeted this Mark Cuban Twitter update:

I connected with what he was saying, and how important it is for us to progress past "what's been working so far." Too many leaders (and their manager minions) challenge new ideas, where offering up a new way is like playing whack-a-mole...where the creative thinker is the mole!

One editor at a highly prestigious publication responded to Mark, of course, with an edit: "Sometimes."  His point, I guess, was that conventional wisdom is usually tried-and-true to the situation since it is, ahem, convention.  But his response also echoes the sentiments of leaders everywhere.  The Status Quo doesn't have an image problem.  It believes that only rarely is "the new way" the best solution.  

These are the new battle lines: Almost Always VS Sometimes.  The Almost Always leader (a new way is Almost Always better) believes that we should constantly question how things are done and what's worked up until now.  They are vigilant when it comes to being ahead of the curve.  They like to hire (younger) smart people, who've shown that they can think outside the lines when stuck pursuing a worthy goal.  The Almost Always leader creates a culture where innovation is king, and agility is a habit and not just a response to crisis. 

The Sometimes leader (a new way is Sometimes better) believes that there should be a presumption against change.  They are quick to trot out historical turkeys when faced with a challenge to convention--especially if it comes in the form of a novel idea, which requires a change in the rules.  They like to hire people with quotable resumes, a willingness to fit in and a tendency to support the system above all else.  The Sometimes leader creates a culture where process is king, and the top goal is to "not blow it" or to "let the cowboys take over."  

Guess which company is RIM/Blackberry VS which company is Google?  Guess which company is Tesla VS which company is GM?  Guess which company is Facebook VS which company is Kodak? 

The cycle of disruption is getting tighter every year, where conventional wisdom transmutes into head-in-the-sand thinking.  What worked like a charm a few years ago, clunks along in last place today where the consumer is more mobile, agile and hostile to his grandfather's solution.  

Even if you have an Almost Always leadership style, that doesn't mean you are creating an anything goes culture. In the case of Google, it's mantra was "Do Epic Shit".  There are still many steps that a new way must take to get from the whiteboard to the field.  It has to find a tribe.  Then it needs legal or the department of comportment to sign off.  Then it usually needs money, and often, cannibalization of an existing cash calf (which used to be the cash cow).  Those "gates" often shut down new ideas even in the most innovative cultures.  

But at least, if the presumption was in favor of a new way, your leadership style just might create a climate where your talents bring their ideas to work, and fight for the company to stay relevant.  If you have a Sometimes leadership style, that's one gate too many for almost any new idea to get through.  If your presumption is for the Status Quo, your company doesn't have a chance ... barring throwing out its leadership ... to compete for the future.   

This jives with what I've learned from author Bill Jensen (Disrupt!): "Your company isn't disrupted.  Your eco-system is disrupted by a more agile culture."  And when the culture smells stale, that fish stinks from the head! 


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