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Archive for May, 2011

Quotable Quotes: Lincoln Steffens

Monday, May 23rd, 2011

I read a review about a new Lincoln Steffens biography and it was interesting enough that I looked for quotes and added (as usual) my own interpretation.

There’s been a lot of discussion on the value of college, mostly as a result of the recession. Steffens thoughts are from long ago, but they certainly resonate today, “It is possible to get an education at a university. It has been done; not often”

I puzzled over this one and finally decided that there is one incorrect word. “Somebody must take a chance. The monkeys who became men, and the monkeys who didn’t are still jumping around in trees making faces at the monkeys who did.” To make sense it should read, “Somebody must take a chance. Some monkeys became men, and the monkeys who didn’t are still jumping around in trees making faces at the monkeys who did.” Or, if it was rewritten for today’s entrepreneurial media frenzy, it might read, “Somebody must take a chance. Some people became entrepreneurs, and the people who didn’t are still jumping around in trees making faces at the people who did.”

Did you know that Steffens is responsible for the truism, “Nothing fails like success?”

He also said, “Power is what men seek and any group that gets it will abuse it.” Totally accurate, but these days it should read ‘any group or individual‘.

But when all is said and done, remember, “Morality is only moral when it is voluntary.”

Wikimedia Commons image credit: Rockwood, New York, New York [Public domain]

mY generation: One Day Per Week

Sunday, May 22nd, 2011

See all mY generation posts here.

Expand Your Mind: Three of This and Two of That

Saturday, May 21st, 2011

Ugh, I hate evenings like this; I absolutely do not feel like putting together Saturday’s post. I mean, I really don’t! But according to the stats, there are actually people put there who look forward to Saturday, so here I am.

You know all those stories about driven entrepreneurs chasing their vision in an effort to change the world? Well, that’s not always how it happens.

Joel Henriques is a stay-at-home dad, but a highly observant one. When he saw that his twins preferred playing with their drool bibs as opposed to all the toys they had he started developing toys from whatever was handy and sharing how-to at http://madebyjoel.blogspot.com/. Click over and check it out, or pick up his new book.

Next meet Magda Sayeg, a 37-year-old Texan who owned a knitting shop, created what is called “yarn bombing,” became a recognized artist with so many commissions she had to hire additional knitters and closed her store.

What do Terri Urbash, Ernie Gutierrez, and John Tredennick have in common? All three accidentally founded companies with revenues in the millions.

Steve Jobs is the quintessential entrepreneur. Over the years people have marveled at his string of successes, but, being human, he has made mistakes. Some are real doozies, too, such as denying he fathered a child and dumping all his Apple stock when he was fired.

Finally, there is Bel Kaufman, granddaughter Sholem Aleichem, the greatest Yiddish storyteller. She was a teacher, then followed in his footsteps by writing Up the Down Staircase (64 weeks on the NYT best seller list), became a speaker and currently pursues twin hobbies of dancing mambos and tangos. Oh, and she just turned 100.

Happy Saturday and have a great weekend!

Image credit:  MykReeve on flickr

Senior Staff is Key to CEO Success

Friday, May 20th, 2011


Whether a company has 10 or 10,000 people the right people reporting directly to you and whether you call them vice presidents or something else they are critical to your success.

For convenience I’m going to use vp to refer to the top people in your company; those who report directly to the CEO and are responsible for the different functions (with or without staff).

They are the people the CEO relies on

  • as a sounding board;
  • for both tactical and strategic intelligence;
  • to tell it like it is—even when she doesn’t want to hear it
  • to see and understand the big picture;
  • to lead the effort in employee acquisition, motivation, and retention;
  • to support and strengthen the culture she envisioned;
  • to not sabotage another group or start a turf war, and
  • to help stamp out politics whenever and wherever it rears its ugly head.

And more, but you get the idea.

The first item on your agenda when creating a senior staff is to determine what parts of your business/company (beyond the standard ones of finance, development, marketing, and sales) need to report directly to the CEO for peak performance.

You never want a truly critical function reporting through, and responsible to, someone else (agendas do get in the way).

It may be customer service (or whatever it’s called); it could be IT; if you are large enough to have a real HR department (not just a benefits admin) it should definitely report directly.

Support functions are often left to report to the CFO, which can prevent them from being used fro real strategic advantage.

Where does one find talented VPs? Now and then you’ll be lucky enough to actually hire one complete with all the bells and whistles, but more likely you will find a current VP, or talented director, with some of them, or with the right potential.

Be aware that one of the main things that sets great VPs apart from merely good ones, as well as other managers, is a strong strategic ability, which means they see the entire team and understand how their department fits into the whole.

It’s not a given, I’ve known many C-level executives who never grasp this, as well as director level (and lower) managers who get it.

Every member of your staff needs a real understanding of business, including financials, and it’s your responsibility, as their manager, to make sure they get whatever training and information is needed to do their job as a member of your senior staff.

Further, if you want the most powerful senior staff possible cross train them in each other’s functions and challenges.

Think of the phenomenal value of a CFO who understands the intricacies of manufacturing as more than a set of numbers; a VP of Engineering who understands financials and inventory turns; an HR head who understands what actually happens in the different departments, etc.

Think of the power inherent in a senior staff that understands what it takes to turn an idea into a product and a product into revenue.

And if you still have doubts about hiring all that power, don’t focus on the difference it would make to the company, but rather the difference it would make doing your own job.

Stock.Xchng image credit: http://www.sxc.hu/photo/1209081

Entrepreneur: Jesse Reiss

Thursday, May 19th, 2011

jessie reiss of the gorgon lab

I want to share something I read last week. It was written by a young software engineer who works in a startup in San Francisco.

The post resonated with me because Jesse said exactly what I’ve been saying for years and that meant a lot; not because he agreed with me, but because he is an aMillennial who recognizes the importance of culture and how to create and retain it.

You’ve heard it before, not just from me, but from coaches, academics, even investors. Now hear it from someone who typifies the kind of employee every boss wants to hire.

on startup culture

The startup culture has become a thing of legend. Decades ago, startups began filling their offices with scooters, zip-lines, and ping-pong tables. Today, perks like free massages, catered lunches and “beer fridges” are common place, even expected. 1pm – 4am has become an acceptable workday. Men wearing kilts or employees with crazy piercings or neon colored hair are frequently seen in the halls of technology companies of all sizes. Even larger companies like Google, Netflix, Apple, and Zappos are renowned for their unique “startup culture”.

I’ve now worked for three different startups in as many years. I have also interviewed, have friends who work at, or met with leaders of many other startups. As such, I’ve gotten a pretty good sense for a variety of very different startup cultures. My company, Spot, with only five employees, is a tiny team. As we discuss scaling, however, I’ve started to spend a lot of time thinking about the kinds of things that differentiate a startup’s culture, how to cultivate the good and how to avoid the bad.

A startup’s culture is, to me, as important as anything a startup strives to create. Startups must be nimble and innovative in order to be successful. They have no hope of outspending or outlasting an established company and so they must outpace and outthink their larger competitors. In essence, the startups primary advantage is their culture, an environment where creative, passionate, hard working employees can thrive.

In the earliest stages, this is relatively easy. The first employees are friends of the founder or hand picked candidates. In the beginning, the founder can make it a priority to focus on culture. As the team scales, however, and the demands on the founder increase, he or she becomes further removed from the process of building and maintaining culture. At this point, the startup must be like a crystal, so imbued with the culture that as it grows it maintains the same core structures and values. The culture must become, as our advisor James Currier once explained to me, “part of the company’s DNA”.

So, what culture should a startup strive to create? What structure best establishes the culture “into the DNA”?

I believe there are four high level ideals a startup should strive for. Some of what follows might be obvious, other parts unfounded. These are my beliefs based on my anecdotal experiences, so pull out your salt.

1. A Rigorous Hiring Process

Your team is your culture, and for most startups, your team is your product, so this is by far the most important point. I firmly believe that a good employee is worth at least 15 decent employees and an infinite number of bad employees. Don’t throw bodies at a problem, get your best and brightest to work on it. Consider a three month trial period for new employees. It might be scary for some applicants, but committing to a job is a lot like a marriage: shouldn’t you try living together first? Develop a rigorous interview process and cultivate interviewing skills in your employees. When hiring, look for potential and eagerness over experience. Invest in getting your team together outside the office. Bonding experiences are invaluable. Try to build a team of people who genuinely like each other. It’s not easy, but when it works, it’s an amazing thing to be a part of.

2. Transparency

In my experience, transparency is empowering, while opacity is frustrating, confusing, and frightening. Share your information. Share your problems and you might be surprised where the best solutions come from. Share your successes to improve morale, but share your failures to make sure you learn from them. Don’t be afraid to share bad news. When you’re in charge of sharing information, you control the tone it’s shared in. If you try to bottle it up, it will leak without the proper context. Employees are apt to return the favor, sharing information up the chain if they feel it’s reciprocated. Information leaking outside the company is a serious threat, but if you can’t trust your employees, you have a bigger problem.

3. Employee Ownership

It is standard practice in startups to share equity with your employees, but there is more to ownership than just stock options. There is pride in ownership, a drive to show off, to accomplish something real. The closer your employees are to their work, the more of themselves they can see in it and the harder they will work to accomplish their goals. Listen to your employees ideas, if they’re good, put them in charge of implementing them. If they’re not good, try to convince them. Give employees high level goals and let them determine the details, they’ll be more apt to put all their heart and soul into working on their own solution. Don’t be stingy with equity. You can’t do it alone and you’re already sharing the risk. Share the reward too.

4. Flexibility

One of the benefits of working for a startup is the flexibility to work when and how you want. Startup work is mentally and physically demanding and it is easy to burn out. If you force your employees to work on your terms, you risk getting substandard work from exhausted and discouraged employees. Trust your employees to get their work done on their own terms. Also, be flexible about how your employees solve their problems and what problems your employees are solving. There are always higher level goals a company needs to accomplish, but a good employee left to play may well stumble upon something amazing. Twitter and Gmail are likely the two most famous examples but it happens all the time in varying degrees.

Speaking of Twitter, I recently had the opportunity to speak with Jack Dorsey about the culture he is trying to create at Square. He described managing a startup as an editorial role (fitting since they share offices with the San Francisco Chronicle). Much like a reporter, individual contributors should be able to pitch ideas for projects, and managers, like editors, should direct their contributors with high level suggestions. I think this is a perfect model to try to emulate. Rather than worrying about the details of the business, managers should work to maintain a consistent tone and vision in their product. Contributors should be given the flexibility to set their goals and should be given access to all the tools available to successfully accomplish their goals. In the end, it is the contributors who are on the ground, who experience the battle day to day, and who write the stories that define your product.

Building and maintaining a culture is an ongoing process. A startup is an evolving, ever changing entity and your culture will be too. Don’t expect your culture to evolve overnight or to arise from a single change. If you consider the culture, however, as you make decisions, and if you strive to create a great team with transparency, flexibility, and ownership I think you will quickly begin to reap the rewards. It’s not easy work, but nothing in a startup is, and your culture is well worth the challenge.

Image credit: the gorgon lab

WW: Culture is Synergistic

Wednesday, May 18th, 2011


Flickr image credit: Maurice Heuts

Ducks In A Row: OK to Say No

Tuesday, May 17th, 2011

An excellent article called Saying No to the Boss (definitely worth reading) that highlights yet again the importance of fostering a culture that never kills the messenger, because it recognizes the importance of getting bad news soonest.

Jay Grinney, who replaced Richard Scushy as CEO of HealthSouth, made his first priority changing the culture.

“That culture was characterized by fear, intimidation, favoritism, a very ego-centric CEO.”

He confirms what everyone on the receiving end of culture knows, but often ignores when on the initiating end.

“I don’t think there’s any single formula for proving your intent. It has to be demonstrated in every single thing that I do and has to be reflected in the people I surround myself with.”

There are two very important thoughts in that comment, but the second often gets lost or falls victim to expediency.

The first is simple and obvious—actions speak louder than words; better known as talk is cheap.

The second requires more tenacity, because it often means passing on a candidate with great skills, but not a good cultural match.

If the CEO goes ahead and hires that person it does more than send a message that the new direction is a lie; it guarantees the wrong culture will be propagated, since that person will hire people true to her cultural vision, not the company’s.

Finally, Grinney points out the one of the worst errors any boss can make and it’s one that has had a higher profile in the last decade than ever before.

“One of the pitfalls of being the CEO is you can start believing your own press. The business world is full of examples of hubris taking over.”

In other words, don’t drink your own Kool-Aid.

From CEO to team leader, you have the ability to foster a culture of openness and safety or one of fear and intimidation.

As always, it’s your choice; make it consciously.

Fickr image credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/zedbee/103147140/

Your Shoes were Made for Walking…

Monday, May 16th, 2011

4192578093_84f2704838_mI have to laugh every time I see a reference to Management-By-Walking-Around (MBWA) that creates the impression that it’s a hot new management tool.

Hot, yes; new, no.

MBWA dates to 1940 and is a management technique instituted by Dave Packard at the founding of HP; it’s “marked by personal involvement, good listening skills and the recognition that “everyone in an organization wants to do a good job.””

I’ve written about it before and when I looked at that post I found little that needed changing, go here it is again.

Remember Management-By-Walking-Around? It’s an oldie, but a goodie.

Great managers work to spend at least 25% of their time wandering around chatting and building trust with their people.

Don’t have time? Maybe that’s because you never really thought abut the benefits. Getting to know your people this way helps you to

  • spot high-potential workers;
  • raise your trust quotient with employees;
  • improve retention;
  • attract talent;
  • discover molehills before they’re mountains, and, most importantly, it’s the best, if not only, way to
  • know what’s really going on.

But to work it must be the norm—that means it needs to be done constantly, not just when there’s a problem.

Consistent, casual visits make people feel comfortable and encourages them to chat—saying what they are thinking without editing it. To pass on information, rumors, and the like without wondering or worrying that it will boomerang and hurt them.

While wandering, you’ll hear enough to validate or repudiate what you heard from somewhere else. It lets you protect your sources—which means they’ll continue to pass on information—and it helps you avoid acting on erroneous information.

The higher you rise in the organization the more important this intelligence becomes.

One of the greatest dangers for any manager is getting isolated and hearing only a sanitized or slanted version of what’s going on within the group, department or company. This is especially true for the CEO and senior staff.

Bottom-line—get off your duff, out of your office, wander around, say hi, listen, be a sponge and soak it all up.

Invest the time—that’s what managers do—and it will pay off handsomely!

MBWA works best when it is embedded in your MAP, as well as part of your organization’s cultural DNA.

Flickr image credit: HikingArtist.com

mY generation: Nature of the Business

Sunday, May 15th, 2011

See all mY generation posts here.

Quotable Quotes: Archimedes

Sunday, May 15th, 2011

Considering Archimedes achievements, reputation, inventions and recognition as one of the greatest mathematicians in all of human history, there is little information about his life and none about his loves (if any).

Sadly, for all that he accomplished, I can find only two quotes from him.

The first has passed into common usage since Archimedes coined it.

“Eureka! – I have found it!”

I love the second one. It encompasses the attitude of all those who accomplish anything—great or small. Especially those who look at what is, but see instead what could be—and then make it a reality.

“Give me a lever long enough and a fulcrum on which to place it, and I shall move the world.”

So the next time you’re having trouble turning a dream into reality don’t give up.

Instead, be sure the fulcrum is correctly placed and then try a longer lever.

Image credit: Dr. Manuel at de.wikipedia

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