Apr 192012

The Art of the Quest

Jim Collins, in both Good to Great and Built to Last talked about the BHAG – the Big, Hairy Audacious Goal – as one of the drivers of companies to achieve excellence.  Perhaps that’s true, especially if those goals are singular enough and simplified enough for an entire company of 100-1000-10000 employees to rally around.

I have also observed over the years that both star performers and strong leaders drive themselves by setting large goals.  Sometimes they are Hairy or Audacious.  Sometimes they are just Big.  I suppose sometimes they are all three.  Regardless, I think successfully managing to and accomplishing large personal goals is a sign of a person who is driven to be an achiever in life – and probably someone you want on your team, whether as a Board member, advisor, or employee, assuming they meet the qualifications for the role and fit the culture, of course.

I’m not sure what the difference is between Hairy and Audacious.  If someone knows Jim Collins, feel free to ask him to comment on this post.  Let’s assume for the time being they are one and the same.  What’s an example of someone setting a Hairy/Audacious personal goal?  My friend and long-time Board member Brad Feld set out on a quest 9 years ago to run a marathon in each of the 50 states by the age of 50.  Brad is now 9 years in with 29 marathons left to go.  For those of you have never run a marathon (and who are athletic mortals), completing one marathon is a large, great and noteworthy achievement in life.  I’ve done two, and I thought there was a distinct possibility that I was going to die both times, including one I ran with Brad .  But I’ve never felt better in my life than crossing the finish tape those two times.  I’m glad I did them.  I might even have another one or two in me in my lifetime.  But doing 50 of them in 9 years?  That’s a Hairy and Audacious Goal.

For me, I think the Big goal may be more personally useful than the Hairy or Audacious.  The difference between a Big goal and a Hairy/Audacious one?  Hard to say.  Maybe Hairy/Audacious is something you’re not sure you can ever do, where Big is just something that will take a long time to chip away at.  For example, I started a quest about 10-12 years ago to read a ton of American history books, around 50% Presidential biographies, from the beginning of American history chronologically forward to the present.  This year, I am up to post-Civil War history, so roughly Reconstruction/Johnson through Garfield, maybe Arthur.  I read plenty of other stuff, too – business books, fiction, other forms of non-fiction, but this is a quest.  And I love every minute of it.  The topic is great and dovetails with work as a study in leadership.  And it’s slowly but surely making me a hobby-level expert in the topic.  I must be nearing Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hours by now.

The reason someone sets out on a personal quest is unclear to me.  Some people are more goal-driven than others, some just like to Manage by Checklist, others may be ego-driven, some love the challenge.  But I do think that having a personal quest can be helpful to, as Covey would say, Sharpen the Saw, and give yourself something to focus personal time and mental/physical energy on.

Just because someone isn’t on a personal quest doesn’t mean they’re not great, by the way.  And someone who is on a quest could well be a lunatic.  But a personal quest is something that is useful to look for, interesting and worth learning more about if discovered, and potentially a sign that someone is a high achiever.

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.”

Oct 182008

Book Short: The Anti-Level-5 Leader

Book Short: The Anti-Level-5 Leader

The Five Temptations of a CEO, another short leadership fable in a series by Patrick Lencioni, wasn’t as meaningful to me as the last one I read, The Four Obsessions of an Extraordinary Executive (post, link), but it wasn’t bad and was also a quick read.

The book to me was the 30 minute version of all the Level-5 Leadership stuff that Collins wrote about in Good to Great and Built to Last. All that said, it was a good quick read and a reminder of what not to do. The temptations are things that most CEOs I’ve ever known (present company very much included) have at least succumbed to at one point or another in their career. That said, you as a CEO should quit or be fired if you have them in earnest, so hopefully if you do have them, you recognize it and have them in diminishing quantities with experience, and hopefully not all at once:

– The temptation to be concerned about his or her image above company results

– The temptation to want to be popular with his or her direct reports above holding them accountable for results

– The temptation to ensure that decisions are correct, even if that means not making a decision on limited information when one is needed

– The temptation to find harmony on one’s staff rather than have productive conflict, discussion, and debate

– The temptation to avoid vulnerability and trust in one’s staff

I’m still going to read the others in Lencioni’s series as well. They may not be the best business books ever written, but they’re solid B/B+s, and they’re short and simple, which few business books are and all should be!

Jan 042007

Book (Not So) Short: Raise Your Hand If You’re Sure

Book (Not So) Short:  Raise Your Hand If You’re Sure

I couldn’t get the catchy jingle from the 80’s commercial for Sure deodorant (you remember, the one with the Statue of Liberty at the end of it – thanks, YouTube) out of my head while I was reading the relatively new book, Confidence: How Winning Streaks and Losing Streaks Begin and End.  Written by HBS professor Rosabeth Moss Kantor, Confidence is one of the few business books I’ve read that’s both long and worth reading in full.

The book has scores of examples of both winning and losing streaks, from sports, business, politics, and other walks of life, and it does a great job of breaking down the core elements that go into creating a winning streak or turnaround (Accountability, Collaboration, Innovation).  Kantor also puts a very fine point on the “doom loop” of losing streaks and just how hard it is to turn them around.  The book also has a good crisp definition of why winning streaks end — arrogange, anyone? — and has consistent, but not preachy recipes for avoiding pitfalls and driving success.  All in all, very inspirational, even if many of the roots of success lie in well-documented leadership qualities like those expressed in Jim Collins’ Built to Last and Good to Great.  The book is good enough that Kantor can even be forgiven for lauding Verizon, probably the most consistently awful customer service company I’ve ever dealt with.

But even more of the roots of success and disappointment around streaks are psychological, and these examples really rang true for me as I reflected back on our acquisition of the troubled NetCreations in 2004.  That company was in the midst of a serious slump, a losing streak dating back to 2000, at the peak of the original Internet boom.  Year over year, the company had lost revenues, profits, customers, and key personnel.  Its parent company saw poor results and set it into the doom loop of starving it for resources and alternating between ignoring it and micromanaging it, and when we acquired the business, we found great assets and some fantastic people (many of whom I’m proud to say are still with us today), but a dispirited, blame-oriented, passive culture that was poised to continue wallowing in decline.

I can hardly claim that we’ve turned the business around in full, or that I personally made happen whatever turnaround there has been, but I do think we did a few things right as far as Kantor and Confidence would see it.  Her formula for a turnaround (Espouse the new message, Exemplify it with leadership actions, Establish programs to systematically drive it home throughout the organization) is right in line with our philosophy here at Return Path.

First, we accelerated the separation and autonomy of a fledgeling NetCreations spin-off unit, now our Authentic Response market research group, and let a culture of collaboration and innovation flourish under an exceptionally talented leader, Jeff Mattes.

But that was the easy part (for me anyway), because that part of the business was actually working well, and we just let it do its thing, with more support from HQ.  The turnaround of the core list rental and lead generation business of NetCreations, the original Postmaster Direct, was much tougher and is still a work in progress.  In the last six months, we’ve finally turned the corner, but it hasn’t been easy.  Even though we knew lots of what had to be done early on, actually doing it is much harder than b-school platitudes or even the best-written books make it seem.

The one thing that Kantor probably gives short shrift to, although she does mention it in passing a couple times, is that frequently turnarounds require massive major amounts of purging of personnel (not just management) to take hold.  As one of my former colleagues from Mercer Management Consulting used to say, “sometimes the only way to effect Change Management is to change management.”  Sometimes even very talented people are just bogged down with baggage — the “ghost of quarters past” — and nothing you do or say can break that psychological barrier.

Boy, have we learned that lesson here at Return Path the hard way.  I’m extremely grateful to our team at Return Path, from the old RP people who’ve seen it all happen, to the old NetCreations people who are thriving in the new environment, to the new blood we’ve brought in to help effect the turnaround, for playing such important roles in our own Confidence-building exercises here.  And I’m super Confident that 2007 will be the year that we officially turn the old NetCreations/Postmaster losing streak into a big, multi-year winning streak.

Anyway, I realize this may redefine the “short” in book short, but Confidence is without question a good general management and leadership read.

Oct 152006

Book Short: You’d Never Run Your Business This Way…

Book Short:  You’d Never Run Your Business This Way…

I am an unabashed conservative, so you might wonder what I was doing reading  A Country That Works, by union chief Andy Stern, the President of SEIU (Service Workers International Union) this weekend.  Well, part of it is that my mother-in-law Carmen works for him.  Part was that he was quite inspiring during his recent appearance on the Colbert Report a week or two ago.  And part was that I always like reading about different points of view, especially with the current, somewhat dismal state of the Republican leadership in Washington.

The book was very short and a worthwhile read.  I may not agree with Stern on some of his illustrations of the problems — his statistical presentations were a bit apples-to-oranges at times — and some of his solutions, which were a bit high on the big-government-tax-and-spend side for me, but the book was very plain-speak, apolitical, and solution-oriented, all of which I found refreshing.

He certainly had at least one underlying premise about “labor as electricity ” (compete on something else other than forcing wages to go lower) that is making me think hard about my long-standing philosophical opposition to federally-mandated minimum wages.  His notion of the importance of a global labor movement to act as a check/balance on corporate globalization both make sense.  Actually, now that I think about it, those two things put together start working well as one plank in a solution to global poverty.

But the best part of the book was the fact that Stern is clear that, like his ideas or hate them,  he is at least proposing that we DEAL with them.  America is missing serious debate about some critical issues facing our society.  Anyone who doesn’t think we have serious problems facing our future around retirement savings, education, and health care is not facing reality.  The debate happening in Washington today is weak at best, and over-politicized.

The bottom line is that I think we’re in danger as a country of boiling the frog when it comes to some major structural issues in our society, and, most important to me, You’d Never Run Your Business This Way.  Any good entrepreneur knows that when danger lurks around the corner, you have to reinvent yourself, and we as a country aren’t doing that at this moment when we’d benefit from it greatly for the long term.  Stern displays that mix of optimism for the future and serious reality check today known as the Stockdale Paradox and revered by Jim Collins in his two books on corporate leadership, Good to Great and Built to Last.

My biggest criticism of the book was that it was too short.  It was basically 1/3 Andy’s story, 1/3 SEIU’s story, and 1/3 labor’s story — and it could have been at least twice as long and gone into more detail on Stern’s points, especially in the last chapter where he starts spelling out his plan to get America back on track.  But presumably when Stern runs for national office or gets a cabinet appointment someday (no inside knowledge here, but the book certainly reads that way), he’ll flesh things out a bit!

Mar 292006

Book short: Myers-Briggs Redux

Book short:  Myers-Briggs Redux

Instinct:  Tapping Your Entrepreneurial DNA to Achieve Your Business Goals, by Tom Harrison of Omnicom, is an ok book, although I wouldn’t rush out to buy it tomorrow.  The author talks about five broad aspects of our personalities that influence how we operate in a business setting:  Openness to Experience, Conscientiousness, Extroversion, Agreeableness, and Neuroticism.  These traits are remarkably similar to those in the popular Myers-Briggs Type Indicator that so many executives have taken over the years.

It’s not just that you want to be high, high, high, high, and low in the Big 5.  Harrison asserts that successful entrepreneurs need a balance of openness and conscientiousness in order to be receptive to new ideas, but be able finish what you start; a balance of extroversion and agreeableness so that you have enough energy but also have the ability to work with others; and not too much neuroticism, as you have to be able to take risks.

The book not only talks about how to spot these factors, but how to work around them if you don’t have them (that part is particularly useful, but he doesn’t do it for all five factors).  He also talks about the entrepreneurial addiction to success, and creating the all-important Servant CEO culture, which I certainly agree with and wrote about early on in this blog in my “Who’s The Boss?” posting.

Harrison does have a great section on how “Nice Guys” can and should be winners; how being nice and having guts aren’t mutually exclusive, and he gives a well-written Twelve Rules for expressing the Nice Guy gene:

– Don’t walk on other people, but don’t let them walk on you

– Respect the big idea in everyone

– Own everything

– Never let ’em see you sweat Keep it simple

– Never think in terms of “So what have you done for me today?”

– More is less

– Live your word consistently

– Don’t lie:  fix what’s causing you to think you need to lie

– Never forget to thank, congratulate, or acknowledge people for their efforts

– Keep your door and your heart open

– Never stand in the way of balance

The most annoying part of the book is that Harrison keeps making references to a handful of genetic studies about twins to prove on and off that traits are inherited and that inherited traits can be expressed in different ways.  These references are mildly interesting, but they detract from the substance of the book.

Overall, the book has some interesting points in it, but it’s too much like Jim Collins’ Good to Great and Built to Last, only without the depth of business research and case studies.  Plus, Harrison does the one thing I find most irritating in business books — he is clearly an expert in one thing (business), but he unnecessarily pretends to be an expert in another thing (genetics) in order to make his point.

Oct 312005

Book Short: Reality Doesn’t have to Bite

Book Short:  Reality Doesn’t have to Bite

I just read Confronting Reality (book; audio), the sequel to Execution, by Larry Bossidy and Ram Charan.  Except I didn’t read it, I listened to it on Mariquita’s iPod Shuffle over the course of two or three long runs in the past week.  The book was good enough, but I also learned two valuable lessons.  Lesson 1:  Listening to audio books when running is difficult – it’s hard to focus enough, easy to lose one’s place, can’t refer back to anything or take notes.  Lesson 2:  If you sweat enough on your spouse’s Shuffle, you can end up owning a Shuffle of your own.

Anyway, I was able to focus on the book enough to know that it’s a good one.  It’s chock full of case studies from the last few years, including some “new economy” ones instead of just the industrial types covered in books like Built to Last and Good to Great.  Cisco, Sun, EMC, and Thomson are all among those covered.  The basic message is that you really have to dig into external market realities when crafting a strategic plan or business model and make sure they’re in alignment with your financial targets as well as people and processes.  But the devil’s in the details, and the case studies here are great.

Aug 082005

A Ball Bearing in the Wheels of E-Commerce

A Ball Bearing in the Wheels of E-Commerce

As an online marketing professional, I’ve long understood intellectually how e-commerce works, how affiliate networks function, and why the internet is such a powerful selling tool.  But I got an email the other day that drove this home more directly.

When I started my blog about a year and a half ago, I set myself up as an Amazon affiliate, meaning that any time someone clicks on a link to Amazon from one of my postings or on the blog sidebar, I get paid a roughly 4% commission on anything that person buys on Amazon on that session.

According to the email report I just got from Amazon on Q2 sales driven by my blog, I am responsible for driving traffic that buys about $2,500 worth of merchandise from Amazon every quarter, which yields about $100 to me in affiliate fees.  All I really link to are business books that I summarize in postings, although people who click from my blog to Amazon end up buying all sorts of random things (according to my report, last quarter’s purchases included a Kathy Smith workout DVD and a new socket wrench set in addition to lots of copies of Jim Collins’ Built to Last and Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink.

This is a true win-win-win — Amazon gets traffic for a mere 4% of sales, a relatively low marketing cost; I get a small amount of money to cover the various fees associated with my blog (Typepad, Newsgator, Feedburner), and people who read my blog pay what they’re going to pay to Amazon anyway – and maybe get something they otherwise wouldn’t have gone out to get in the process.

My blog is certainly not a top 1,000 blog, or probably not even a top 10,000 blog in terms of size of audience.  This is merely a microcosm that proves the macro trends.  If I’m driving $10,000 per year of business to Amazon, now I REALLY understand how there are now approximately 500,000 people who make their LIVING by selling goods on eBay, and how probably another 500,000 people are making good side money or possibly even making their living by running offers and affiliate marketing programs from their web sites.  I’m like a little ball bearing in the finely tuned but explosively growing wheel of e-commerce.

If my quarterly affiliate fees keep growing, I’ll find something more productive or charitable to do with them than keep them for myself.  But for now, I am covering my costs and marveling on a personal level at how all this stuff works as well as it does.

Sep 222004

Political versus Corporate Leadership, Part II: Admitting Mistakes

Political versus Corporate Leadership, Part II: Admitting Mistakes

The press conference this past spring where President Bush embarrassingly refused to admit that he had ever made any big mistakes, other than to reiterate his gaffe at trading Sammy Sosa when he owned the Texas Rangers, brings up another issue in this series: is it good for leaders, both political and corporate, to admit mistakes?

On the corporate side, I think the ability to admit a mistake is a must. Again, I’ll refer back to Jim Collins’ books Good to Great and Built to Last, both of which talk about humility and the ability to admit mistakes as a critical component of emotional intelligence, the cornerstone of solid leadership. And in another great work on corporate leadership, The Fifth Discipline, writer Peter Senge talks about “learning systems” and the “learning organization” as far superior companies. My experience echoes this. Publicly admitting a mistake, along with a careful distillation of lessons learned, can go a long way inside a company to strengthening the bond between leader and team, regardless of the size of the company.

But in politics, the stakes are higher and weirder — and the organization is a nation, not a company. Publicly admitting a single mistake can be a leader’s downfall. It’s too easy these days for political opponents to seize on a mistake as a “flip flop” and turn a candidate’s own admission into a highly-charge negative ad.

There was a fantastic op-ed in The Wall Street Journal back on April 15 on this topic, which unfortunately doesn’t have an available link at the moment, entitled “Bush Enters a Political Quandary As He Faces Calls for an Apology.” I’ll try to both quote from and summarize the article here since it’s central to this topic:

“For a politician, is an apology a sign of weakness or strength? That is the debate now swirling around President Bush after a prime-time news conference in which he refused reporters’ invitations to acknowledge any specific mistakes in handling the issue of terrorism or offer an apology to Sept. 11 victims’ families. Mr. Bush deflected the invitation, saying, ‘Here’s what I feel about that: The person responsible for the attacks was Osama bin Laden.’ Mr. Bush’s quandary is a time-honored struggle for politicians. While some have found a public apology helps them out of a tough spot, others discovered it can fuel more criticism. So far, there isn’t a definitive answer.”

The article goes on to say that while Harry Truman’s “the buck stops here” mentality was de rigeur in the Beltway for a while (through Kennedy’s Bay of Pigs fiasco and Reagan’s poor handling of Beirut), nowadays, apologies are a dreaded last resort. The reason? The rise of partisanship and the use of ethics and congressional or special counsel investigations used to humiliate or defeat political opponents by raising the spectre of corruption. The examples? Gingrich’s struggles in 1996 over his book; Clinton’s ridiculous linguistics machinations (“it depends what the definition of ‘is’ is”) around the Lewinsky scandal; and Lott’s downfall over segregationist comments.

The piece wraps up by saying that “Mr. Bush was backed into the apology quandary by one of his administration’s toughest critics, former White House terrorism expert Richard Clarke…Since then, White House officials have been pressured to do likewise [apologize to victims’ families about the government’s failings on 9/11] — or explain why they won’t…[but] aides are convinced that admitting error would only embolden Mr. Bush’s critics in the Democratic Party and the news media.”

So the question is: would Bush be better off by saying “Sorry, folks, we thought there were WMD in Iraq, but it turns out we were wrong. And we miscalculated how difficult it would be to win the war, how many troops it would take, and how many lives would be lost. I still feel like it was right for us to go to war there for the following four reasons…”?

I’m not sure about that. He’d certainly be more intellectually honest, and a number of people in intellectual circles would feel better about him as a leader, but my guess is that he thinks it would cost him the election in today’s environment. My conclusion is that today’s system is discouraging politicians from admitting mistakes, and that it will take an exceptionally courageous leader (neither Bush nor Kerry as far as I can tell) to do so.

In the end, while humility appeals to many people in a leader, it’s not for everyone. Fortunately for us, CEOs don’t have to run for office and most CEOs don’t have to face some the same level of public, personally competitive, and media scrutiny that politicians do. Now that’s an interesting conclusion that I didn’t intend at the beginning of the post — being a good political leader and being a good politician are sometimes deeply at odds with each other.

Next up in the series: Not sure! Any ideas? Please comment on the blog site or by emailing me.

Aug 302004

Political versus Corporate Leadership, Part I: Realist or Idealist?

It’s election season, the GOP convention is literally in my backyard, and while this is not a political blog, I can’t help myself. As we as Americans grapple with the question of who we want to be our next leader (or at least those people who live in the 11 annointed swing states do), I have had a lot of thoughts lately about the question of what makes a good leader, and what the differences are between successful leadership in politics and successful leadership in business.

James O’Toole’s article on President Bush on page 31 of the September issue of Fast Company (no link available yet) brings up a really interesting point in comparing Bush to former president Ronald Reagan. He asserts that “what made Reagan effective and respected was that his actions followed consistently from a positive worldview.” (I’d also argue that the positive worldview as a starting point had something to do with it, but that’s beside the point.) He goes on to say that Bush has an “implementation problem” in that he “has vacillated between contradictory approaches to leadership: realism and idealism.” His central thesis is stated very clearly that

“Realists and idealists can both be effective leaders. But one cannot be both at once…The leadership lesson for GW – and for any leader – is simple: Followers don’t much care if leaders are realists or idealists, but they distrust inconsistency.”

This may or may not be true in the political arena, but I know it’s not true in business. Jim Collins’ watershed books Built to Last and Good to Great — both must reads! — describe the ideal CEO as someone who can simultaneously be optimistic and idealistic about the future of the company while simultaneously recognizing and dealing with the realities of the short-term situation. Ironically for this posting, Collins calls this the Stockdale paradox, after retired Admiral James Stockdale, a military leader and erstwhile vice presidential candidate of Ross Perot in the 1992 election.

As CEO, I have to constantly be selling the vision of the company — what we’re trying to become and how we’re going to get there — in broad strokes to my investors, board, management team, employees, and even customers. It’s that vision that keeps the whole machine running and keeps everyone focused and excited and working hard towards our long-term goals. But I have to be equally vigilant about the mundane realities of the current quarter, making our numbers, containing costs, and running the machine. If I did either one without the other, I think the whole system would break down.

Is Bush’s problem, as O’Toole asserts, that he articulated two different types of reasons for the war in Iraq — one rooted in Realism (WMD) and one rooted in Idealism (freedom and democracy)? Same goes for his states reasons for the tax cut — Realism on the one hand (to stimulate the economy) and Idealism on the other hand (shrink government). I agree that the Bush Administration has occasional implementation problems and doesn’t have nearly the “following” that Reagan and other more successful leaders in the past have, but I don’t think they’re caused by combining Realism and Idealism in the President’s leadership style. I think the leader of the free world has to do both well, each at its appropriate time, in order to be effective at his job.

Next up in this series: Admitting Mistakes.