Jan 272009

Book Short: Long on Platitudes, Short on Value

Book Short:  Long on Platitudes, Short on Value

I approached Success Built to Last:  Creating a Life That Matters, by Jerry Porras, Stewart Emery, and Mark Thompson, with great enthusiasm, as Porras was co-author, along with Jim Collins, of two of my favorite business books of all time, Built to Last and Good to Great. I was very disappointed in the end.  This wasn’t really a business book, despite its marketing and hype.  At best, it was a poor attempt at doing what Malcolm Gladwell just did in Outliers in attempting to zero in on the innate, learned, and environmental qualities that drive success.

The book had some reasonably good points to make and definitely some great quotes, but it was very rambly and hard to follow.  Its attempt at creating an overall framework like the one used in Built to Last and Good to Great just plain didn’t work, as two of the three legs of the stool were almost incomprehensible, or to put it more charitably, didn’t hang together well.

This isn’t a terrible book to have on your shelf, and it might be good to skim, but remember that “skim” is only one letter away from “skip.”

Jan 272009

Symbolism in Action

Symbolism in Action

A couple months ago, I wrote about how the idiots who run the Big 3 US automakers in Detroit don’t have a clue about symbolism — the art or the science of it.  Yesterday, I wrote about how I think the non-headcount cuts to G&A that we’re making at Return Path during these challenging economic times will be positive for the company in the long run.  The two topics are closely related.

Obama announces on Day 1 that White House staffers who make more than $100k won’t be getting a pay raise this year.  Presumably all of those people just started their jobs on January 20 and wouldn’t be eligible for a raise until 2010.  Return Path cuts pilates classes in its Colorado office — an expense that must cost around $3,000/year.  Practically speaking, it won’t make a difference to our budget one way or another.  Microsoft lays off 1,400 people — a real number, certainly for those families — but that’s the equivalent of Return Path laying off 2 people. 

Sometimes the symbolic is just that.  It is something designed to send a signal to others, and not much more.  You could argue that all three examples above mean nothing in reality, so they were just symbolic.  A waste of time.

You can also make the argument that sometimes, when done right, symbolism turns into action as it motivates or serves as a catalyst for other changes.  Obama’s cuts may be fictitious, but they set the tone for broader action across a 2mm person bureaucracy.  Pilates in the office?  Feels too excessive these days, even for a company obsessed with its employees and their well being, in an era where we’re cutting back other things that are more serious.  Microsoft has gobs of cash and doesn’t need to worry about its future, but it wants to tell the other 99% of its employee population that it’s time to buckle down and fly straight.  And they will.

Anyone who thinks the synbolic doesn’t influence the practical should think again.  Or just talk to Caroline Kennedy about the impact of her admission that she hadn’t voted in years on her political ambitions.

Filed under: Leadership

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Jan 262009

Living With Less…For Good?

Living With Less…For Good?

Like all companies, Return Path is battening down the hatches a bit on expenses these days.  Our business is very strong and still growing nicely, but in this environment, the specter of disaster looms large, so there's no reason not to be more cautious and more profitable.

We weren't an extravagant company before this, and we never have been. But there is almost always room to save. Less travel, leaner budgets for office cafeterias, no more pilates classes in the Colorado office.  We've been very clear internally that our three priorities are protecting everyone's job, everyone's salary, and everyone's health benefits.  Hopefully things continue to go well and those can remain sacrosanct.

We are now a few months into our various cost savings plans, and it's great to see the results on the income statement and balance sheet.  More than that, it's great to see how everyone in the company is rallying around the common cause and looking for other ways to save money as well.  We've made it chic to be cheap.  And so far, there's no impact on the business. 

It will be interesting to me to see what happens on the far end of this economic badness.  It's often said the companies that make it through times like these emerge stronger on the other side, and I think I now understand why:  it's clear to me that some of the changes will work long term and some will only work short term, which means that we'll learn during this period that we can live with less. 

That doesn't mean we were profligate in the past; but it does mean that I think we are going to retrain ourselves.  We don't have to send 10 people to a big trade show to have an impact and drive the business forward.  We don't have to be the vendor who picks up the tab at the end of the night.  We don't need to pay for half the company to have cell phones (a very 1999 policy) to retain top talent.  I bet we will learn those things — and a bunch of others to come — in the next few months.

Filed under: Leadership

Jan 182009

Angry, Defiant, and Replete with Poor Grammar

Angry, Defiant, and Replete with Poor Grammar

I didn’t see Bush’s farewell address on TV on Thursday, but Mariquita and I did see his press conference on Monday.  It was exactly what you’d expect it to be and quite frankly just like the last eight years:  angry, defiant, and replete with poor grammar.

I’ve said repeatedly that I think Bush has destroyed the Republican party and will go down in history as one of the worst presidents this country has ever had, if not the worst.  It’s not surprising that his tone at the end is as the title of this post describes.  But it is a shame.  His whole administration is a shame.  The really sad part is that it didn’t have to be.  People make mistakes — even really bad ones.  And they can recover from them and go on to do great things in life if two conditions exist:

1. They solicit feedback on their performance, and

2. The internalize and act on that feedback

Bush not only didn’t “get” these two points; he seemed to revel in them.  “Not paying attention to polls” and “At least you know where I stand” seemed to him to be pillars of strength as opposed to pillars of ignorance and complete and total lack of intellectual curiosity.  You don’t have to try to win a popularity contest to find out when something is going wrong on your watch.  And you can be bold, admit a failure, learn from it, and move on instead of just digging yourself deeper and deeper into the same hole.

I read a great article in The Economist last night that summarized its current view of Bush’s legacy, and in fact it noted a bunch of areas in which Bush appeared to learn from his mistakes, though he probably wouldn’t phrase it that way.  The fact that his second administration did do more to reach out to key allies in Germany and France is one example.  And to the article’s credit, it even noted some of Bush’s accomplishments, or at least the areas in which his thinking was right — those those are just dwarfed in the end by his failings.  

At any rate, I’m delighted he’ll be leaving office on Tuesday.  Inauguration day is one of my favorite days in America, and I look forward with optimism to the incoming administration as I always do, regardless of how I voted.

But as for Bush, I think I’d rather have the pilot of that USAir flight as my commander in chief.  Now there’s a guy (I don’t even know his name, and I probably never will) who had a quick grasp of a difficult situation and produced a brilliant and elegant solution in short order!

Filed under: Current Affairs, Leadership

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Jan 142009

Fig Wasp #879

Fig Wasp #879

I have 7 categories of books in my somewhat regular reading rotation:  Business (the only one I usually blog about), American History with a focus on the founding period, Humor, Fiction with a focus on trash, Classics I’ve Missed, Architecture and Urban Planning (my major), and Evolutionary Biology.  I’m sure that statement says a lot about me, though I am happy to not figure it out until later in life.  Anyway, I just finished another fascinating Richard Dawkins book about evolution, and while I usually don’t blog about non-business books, this one had an incredibly rich metaphor with several business lessons stemming from it, plus, evolution is running rampant in our household this week, so I figured, what the heck?

The Dawkins books I’ve read are The Selfish Gene (the shortest, most succinct, and best one to start with), The Blind Watchmaker (more detail than the first), Climbing Mount Improbable (more detail than the second, including a fascinating explanation of how the eye evolved “in an evolutionary instant”), The Ancestor’s Tale (very different style – and a great journey back in time to see each fork in the evolutionary road on the journey from bacteria to humanity), and The God Delusion (a very different book expounding on Dawkins’ theory of atheism).  All are great and fairly easy to read, given the topic.  I’d start with either The Selfish Gene or maybe The Ancestor’s Tale if you’re interested in taking him for a spin.

So on to the tale of Fig Wasp #879, from this week’s read, Climbing Mount Improbable.  Here’s the thing.  There are over 900 kinds of fig trees in the world.  Who knew?  I was dimly aware there was such a thing as a fig tree, although quite frankly I’m most familiar with the fig in its Newton format.  Some species reproduce wildly inefficiently — like wild grasses, whose pollen get spread through the air, and with a lot of luck, 1 in 1 billion (with a “b”) land in the right place at the right time to propagate.  At the opposite end of the spectrum stands the fig tree.  Not only do fig trees reproduce by relying on the collaboration of fig wasps to transport their pollen from one to the next, but it turns out that not only are there over 900 different kinds of fig trees on earth, there are over 900 different kinds of fig wasps — one per tree species.  The two have evolved together over thousands of millenia, and while we humans might take the callous and uninformed view that a fig tree is a fig tree, clearly the fig wasps have figured out how to swiftly and instinctively differentiate one speices from another.

So what the heck does this have to do with business?  Three quick lessons come mind.  I’m sure there are scores more.

1. Collboration only works when each party benefits selfishly from it.  Fig wasps don’t cross-pollenate fig trees bcause the fig trees ask nicely or will fire them if they don’t.  They do their job because their job is independently fulfilling.  If they don’t — they probably die of starvation.  They’re just programmed with a very specific type of fig pollen as their primary input and output.  We should all think about collaboration this way at work.  I wrote a series of posts a couple years back on the topic of Collboration Being Hard, and while all the points I make in those posts are valid, I think this one trumps all.  Quite frankly, it calls on the core principle from the Harvard Project on Negotiation, which is that collaboration requires a rethinking of the pie, so that you can expand the pie.  That’s what the fig trees and fig wasps have done, unwittingly.  Each one gets what it needs far more so than if it had ever consulted directly with the other.  The lesson:  Be selfish, but do it in a way that benefits your company.

2. Incredibly similar companies can have incredibly distinct cultures.  900+ types of fig tree, each one attracting one and only one type of fig wasp.  Could there be anything less obvious to the untrained human eye?  I assume that not only would most of us not be able to discern one tree or wasp type from another, but that we wouldn’t be able to disdcern discern any of the 900+ types of trees or wasps from thousands or hundreds of thousands or millions (in the case or urbanites) types of trees or bugs in general!  But here’s the thing.  I know hundreds of internet companies.  Heck, I know dozens of email companies.  And I can tell you within 5 minutes of walking around the place or meeting an executive which ones I’d be able to work for, and which ones I wouldn’t.  And the older/bigger the company, the more distinct and deeply rooted its culture becomes.  The lessons:  don’t go to work for a company where you’d even remotely uncomfortable in the interview environment; cultivate your company’s culture with same level of care and attention to detail that you would your family — regardless of your role or level in the company!

3. Leadership is irrelevant when the operating system is tight.  You think fig wasps have a CEO?  Or a division president who reports into the CEO that oversees both fig wasps and fig trees, making sure they all cross-pollenate before the end of the quarter?  Bah.  While as a CEO, you may be the most important person in the organization sometimes, or in some ways, I can easily construct the argument that you’re the least important person in the shop as well.  If you do your job and create an organization where everyone knows the mission, the agenda, the goal, the values, the BHAG, whatever you want to call it — withoutit needing to be spelled out every day — you’ve done your job, because you’ve made a company where people rock ‘n’ roll all night and every day without you needing to be in the middle of what they’re doing. 

I’m sure there are other business lessons from evolutionary biology…send them along if you have good thoughts to share!

Filed under: Leadership

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Jan 132009

Bundle of Elyse

Bundle of Elyse

Mariquita and I are pleased to introduce our newest family member, Elyse Joy Blumberg, who arrived this evening!  Quite an experience today – just doesn't get boring, no matter how many you go through.

The official announcement is here.

Filed under: Current Affairs

Jan 052009

Book Short: Two New Ones from Veteran Writers

Book Short:  Two New Ones from Veteran Writers

I’m feeling very New York this week.  I just read both Outliers: The Story of Success, by Malcolm Gladwell, and Hot, Flat, and Crowded: Why We Need a Green Revolution – and How It Can Renew America, by Tom Friedman.  Both are great, and if you like the respective authors’ prior works, are must reads.

In Outliers, Gladwell’s simple premise is that talents are both carefully cultivated and subject to accidents of fate as much as they are genetic.  I guess that’s not such a brilliant premise when you look at it like that.  But as with his other two books, The Tipping Point (about how trends and social movements start and spread) and Blink (about how the mind makes judgments), his examples are fascinating, well researched, and very well written.  Here are a couple quick nuggets, noting that I don’t have the book in front of me, so my numbers might be slightly off:

  • Of the 200 wealthiest people in human history, 9 were Americans born within 5 years of each other in the 1830s – far from a normal distribution for wealth holders/creators
  • Most Silicon Valley titans were both within 2 years of each other in 1954-1955
  • 40% of great hockey players are born in Q1; 30% in Q2; 20% in Q3; and 10% in Q4, as the “cutoff date” for most youth leagues is January 1, so the biggest/oldest kids end up performing the best, getting the best coaches and most attention that propels them throughout their careers

Also, as with his other books, it’s hard to necessarily draw great and sweeping conclusions or create lots of social policy, both of which are quite tempting, as a result of the data.  Scholarly, comprehensive research it might not be, but boy does he make you think twice about, well, lots of things.

In Hot, Flat, and Crowded, Tom Friedman makes a convincing case that two wrongs can make a right, or more to the point, that fixing two wrongs at the same time is a good way of fixing each one more than otherwise would be possible.  What I like best about this book is that it’s not just another liberal journalist trashing America — Friedman’s whole premise here (not to mention language) is fiercely optimistic and patriotic, that if we as a country take a sweeping global leadership role in containing CO2 emissions, we will both save the planet and revive our economy, sustaining our global economic leadership position into the next century at a time when others are decrying the end of the American empire.

His examples are real and vivid.  Like Gladwell, one never knows how unbiased or comprehensive Friedman is, but he covers some of these topics very poignantly:

  • The very strong negative correlation between control of oil supply and democracy/freedom
  • A comprehensive vision for the energy world of the future that’s very cool, apparently has already been piloted somewhere, and feels like it’s actually doable
  • The startling numbers, even if you sort of know them already, about the sheer number of people who will be sharing our planet and consuming more and more resources in the coming decades
  • How too many years of being a privileged nation has led to politics he brilliantly calls “dumb as we wanna be”

Friedman calls his mood sober optimism — that’s a good description.  It’s a very timely book as many Americans hold out hope for the new administration’s ability to lead the country in a positive direction and also restore American’s damaged image in the world come January 20. I have to confess that I still haven’t read Friedman’s The Earth Is Flat, although I read him in the New York Times enough and have seen enough excerpts (and lived in business enough the last 5 years!) to get the point.  And actually, Hot, Flat, and Crowded has enough of the “Flat” part in it that even if you haven’t read The Earth is Flat, you’ll get more than just the gist of it.

Filed under: Books, Business, Current Affairs

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