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Ducks in a Row: Living Your Own Life

Tuesday, April 14th, 2015


Do you find today’s world a bit strange?

I do. Not because of the technology or breakthroughs, but because so many people are trying so hard to live someone else’s life or spending incredible amounts of energy trying to force others to live their way.

I’m not saying they shouldn’t; it’s their choice and doesn’t require my approval or opinion — unless they are trying to cram something down my throat that chokes me.

I neither need nor want the safe, curated world described yesterday.

I’ve screwed up many times in the course of my life; three had disastrous, long-range consequences, yet without them I wouldn’t be me — and I like me.

I realize that there are probably many versions of me that I would like; each a result of choosing a different fork in my path.

What I wouldn’t like would be to live with the desire to be someone else.

We look at public personas with no knowledge or understanding of what went into creating each one or even if they are real.

The dichotomy between the inauthenticity of craving or controlling someone else’s life and the talk of living an authentic life is often hard to swallow.

Geno Auriemma, Coach of the Connecticut Women’s Basketball Team summed it up very well in an interview.

“I’ve always been fascinated by people who care so much about what other people are and what they do in their personal lives,” he told a news conference. “Like, how small-minded do you have to be to care that much about what other people are doing? Life is hard enough as it is, trying to live your own life.”

No matter how wealthy there is someone with more money; no matter how beautiful or handsome there is someone who is better looking; no matter how brilliant there is someone who is smarter or just better uses what they have.

So, whether at work or personally, be proud to be you. No matter who you are or what you do you have a spark that no one else has.

Image credit: Frank Vassen

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Ducks in a Row: Retro Culture of Introductions

Tuesday, March 10th, 2015


For centuries the most important information upon meeting someone new was where were they from and who was their family.

Once that was known the involved parties would be able to figure out how they were connected; crucial information in order to do business or move forward with any kind of relationship.

Then World War II and the post war automobile culture changed our social structure forever.

Strangers met, formed businesses, fell in love and married — all without the introductions and recommendations of family, friends or other associates.

Fifty-plus years later we have reverted to our previous attitudes regarding introductions — now based on professional/personal networks, social media and the crowd-sourced opinions of strangers.

After attending a fintech conference (see his upcoming post Thursday) Ajo Fod, founder of Alpha Sangha, left a comment on KG Charles-Harris’s post regarding the help that entrepreneurs really need.

The most effective resource at this point in my start-up is introductions to the right people. Meeting them directly doesn’t seem to have the same effect as an introduction.

Entrepreneur of not, what can you do to offset a lack of introductions?

Here is what I told Ajo.

You are right in your analysis that the best connections are the result of introductions and this seems especially true when it comes to investors.

Partly it is a function of trust, i.e., I trust you because I trust the person who introduced us, which is ridiculous as I wrote in Who Do You Trust? in 2008 and KG touched on a couple of years ago in If the Shoe Fits: Facing Reality.

Beyond repeating what you already know, such as working your network, finding connections, etc., I suggest that you put part of your focus on developing your peer-and-below network, not just those who can directly help, by reaching out and helping them. One way to accomplish this is by responding on forums like Quora.

Use your expertise to build your visibility, so that even with no intro you will be a more known quantity when they google you.

Not great, but you have to start somewhere.

Image credit: George Tims

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Ducks in a Row: They Are Not You

Tuesday, March 3rd, 2015


Most of us crave acknowledgement when we do something well, I know I do.

Decades ago when I worked as a recruiter for MRI in San Francisco my boss, “Ray,” wasn’t big on that.

It’s not that he wouldn’t do it, he just never thought about it.

Acknowledgement wasn’t something Ray needed, so he was blind to its effect on others.

When he did give the kind of heady feedback that makes people hungry for more, you could see that he didn’t understand it.

Worse, more often than not, it came in response to what he was told — you literally had to walk into his office and say you closed the deal or got a new client to have it happen. 

But praise caught by fishing or out-and-out asking is not worth a whole lot when it comes to motivation.

Nor did he understand how to build a strong team; the kind that could put an ‘Office of the Year’ award on the wall.

I still remember his effort to create the same esprit de corps as “Jeff,” another MRI manager and good friend of his enjoyed.

The effort failed, probably because Ray considered Jeff’s approach rah-rah stuff — the kind of stuff he was known to disparage.

Ray’s problem was similar to many managers I’ve worked with over the years, i.e., he assumed others wanted to be managed in the same way he liked to be managed.

When Ray did try doing it differently it felt like a con.

Which it was, because he didn’t really believe in what he was doing.

Image credit: Jim Hammer

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If the Shoe Fits: the Duplicitous Founder

Friday, February 20th, 2015

A Friday series exploring startups and the people who make them go. Read all If the Shoe Fits posts here.

5726760809_bf0bf0f558_mIf anything has changed in the 21st Century it’s the recognition that culture is everything — the true “make or break” for any company.

Knowing that, founders, of all people, should know better than to do anything that undermines their culture.

And yet they do it all the time.

One of the worst is also one of the commonest — having two teams

  • the one to which they pay lip-service and talk about in public; and
  • the one that has their ear, takes priority and stays front and center in all decisions.

Founders constantly refer to their “team” and it’s taken to mean all the company’s employees.

But, for those the shoe fits, it actually refers to their stars, their pets and all (most?) of their direct reports.

This was a common attitude in larger companies, but at least it was honest; bosses were ‘us’, workers were ‘them’ and everybody knew where they stood.

The changes started when Volvo focused the world on the power of teams, research showed that productivity increased when people were more invested and engaged in their work and terminology was introduced that is inclusive and empowering.

Fast forward to now and that language is in common use, but, as with most things, it can be distorted and perverted.

Founders, like other bosses, fall in two categories.

  • Those who buy it, own it, use it and mean it;
  • and those who use it to keep everyone in line who’s not on the ‘real’ team.

Which are you?

And before you claim the first bullet take a good look at your past actions.

In fact, get some feedback from someone you know will tell you the truth, as opposed to what you already “know” or want to hear.

Image credit: HikingArtist

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Ducks in a Row: 6 Inviolate Rules For A Great Culture

Tuesday, February 10th, 2015


Three of the inviolate rules for a great culture are accepted and respected.

  • Tell the truth.
  • Show initiative.
  • Care

The other three not so much — especially the last one.

  • Make a mess.
  • Take responsibility.
  • Apologize.

But for a culture to be great culture they must apply universally, not selectively

Messes of all sizes happen; they are a fact of life.

People taking responsibility for the messes they make are not.

Apologies for the messes are less common still — especially as people move up the ladder.

But apologies are a necessity — as Intuit CEO Brad Smith points out.

Apologies person to person enable trust; keep teams strong and productivity humming.

Apologies from companies to customers also enable trust and earn a second chance.

Assuming, of course, that the apologies are authentic.

Image credit: pshutterbug

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If The Shoe Fits: Marriage and the Startup Social Contract

Friday, January 30th, 2015

A Friday series exploring Startups and the people who make them go. Read all If the Shoe Fits posts here

5726760809_bf0bf0f558_mI rarely have time to read my Quora feed, but now and then I see a question that pulls me up short as happened when this question from last fall surfaced.

I am an entrepreneur about to get married. How do I make sure my future wife doesn’t benefit financially from our union?  

My reaction was that his fiancée should run as fast as possible in the other direction, since this guy doesn’t seem to have either the understanding of what marriage is or the maturity to build a successful one. (Most of the responses echoed my reaction.)

Thinking further, I wondered whether this entrepreneur honored what Matt Weeks calls The Startup Social Contract at his company, since he obviously didn’t with his wife-to-be.

Marriage, after all, is the ultimate startup and the risks are even greater when an entrepreneur is involved.

Image credit: HikingArtist

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It’s Called Integrity

Wednesday, January 7th, 2015

Plum Creek Portraits

Mixed in with all the bad stuff over the last few weeks of 2014 were some feel-good stories to provide a bit of balance.

One of them that you probably missed was truly surprising.

After all, how many CEOs give back their bonus because they don’t think they deserve and say so publicly?
But that’s exactly what Rick Holley, CEO of Plum Creek Timber Co., did.

He returned 44,445 restricted stock units worth nearly two million dollars.

Holley said, “he does not believe that he should receive such an award unless Plum Creek’s stockholders see an increase in their investment return.”

The board members were surprised, to say the least, CEOs do not refuse, let alone give back, bonuses.

“I told them I wasn’t asking for their approval. They had given these to me and I appreciated their confidence in me, but I didn’t feel comfortable taking them… This has been a year where total shareholder returns are down 10% or more. It just wasn’t the right thing to do.”

And while it’s obvious to any investor or employee that not taking a bonus in a bad year is “the right thing to do” it apparently came as a revelation to those with fiduciary responsibility for all stakeholders.

Apparently the board didn’t realize Holley possesses a trait that’s rarely seen these days, especially where money is concerned.

It’s called integrity.

Image credit: Plum Creek Timber Co.

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Lean Startup Conference 2014: Mikkel Svane and Zendesk’s Story

Thursday, December 11th, 2014

Startup Land book

KG Charles-Harris is once again attending the Lean Startup Conference and sharing his impressions and what he’s learning with you.

It was especially interesting to listen to Mikkel Svane’s talk about Zendesk’s story, because I had read a pre-publication copy of his book Startup Land.

The book was the basis of the talk, I found Mr. Svane to be enlightening, honest and real and all that carried over in his book.

Startup Land was an enjoyable read from a strong entrepreneur, with real stories about the struggle of starting, moving and growing a technology company. 

The fact that they started as entrepreneurs in Denmark and moved an embryonic company to the US only increased the complexity and challenges that the three founders had to traverse in making the company a success. 

Not only were the founders outside the normal Silicon Valley entrepreneurial eco-system, but they were also in a different country with little access to the information or thinking patterns common in the US.  It is a testament to the tenacity and determination, and even more so to the “hustling mentality” of the founders – they were willing to take significant risks and stay completely focused on two things — building a great product and getting immediate revenue on this product.

The author rightly credits the Scandinavian social system for their ability to take some of the risks that they were able to assume — they knew they would never end up on the street homeless, but could suffer a temporary reduction in living standards if they failed.  This is radically different than the case in the US and many other countries where startup failure can lead to destitution.

Regardless, the ingenuity and determination displayed during the process of bringing Zendesk from birth to maturity was an inspiration.  I’m a serial entrepreneur with international background myself, and I know how much effort is required to make that kind of move. 

The major challenge, however, comes with adjusting to the new mindset and culture in your host country.  Startup Land discusses this to some extent, but it would have been interesting to get some more insight about it.

Mr. Svane does a good job of synthesizing his experience into practical advice, summarized in special sections at the end of each chapter.  As such, the book can be a practical guide to such things as what to consider when hiring team members or how to think about particular aspects of the business. 

Also, some of the most interesting, and sometimes funny, parts of the book are found in how the three founders interacted based on their particular personalities and proclivities. 

Considering that founder dynamics is one of the most prevalent reasons for startup failure, this information  should be studied closely.  The difficulties and required tolerance for navigating these issues is core, especially the sensitivity required by the Founder/CEO.

In short, the book is well worth reading — it’s a quick and easy read with practical insights and a good dose of humor.

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Entrepreneurs: Talking about the Down Stuff

Thursday, November 13th, 2014


As any founder knows, the course of business isn’t smooth and even the most successful startups hit bumps along the way.

Your people know it, too.

In fact, they often foresee trouble more clearly than you’d like and are quick to act — walking next door to another startup. And they do this whether their information is accurate or not.

That means you need to learn how much, when and how to communicate to your team, but keep in mind that there are no absolute answers, because it depends on the specific subject and situation.

That said, there are general guidelines that will help you with the question.

  • How much to share? You should discuss with one or more trusted advisors who have substantial experience rather than with peers.
  • When to share? Most crucial is to talk to your people before the rumors start. Rumors are like genies, once out of the bottle they are impossible to put back. Worse, in addition to growing with every telling and spreading through the company, they tend to spread throughout the entire venture ecosystem.
  • How to share? Clearly, honestly, no games, no half truths. You hired smart people and they’ll see right through anything else.

Unfortunately, many founders tend to clamp down, say nothing, run scared, freeze, bluster, or some combination thereof.

There are very few things that are guaranteed in a startup, but watching your people walk out the door because you hunkered down, shut up, and hoped no on would notice is one of them.

Flickr image credit: Michael Coghlan

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The Soul of a Company

Monday, September 22nd, 2014


Does your company have soul?

Or is it so focused on profit that there is no room for anything else?

What does it mean for a company to have soul?

That question is addressed by a Belgium, Frederic Laloux, who quit McKinsey when he found himself miserable and out of touch with his clients.

 “The work I had loved so much was work I simply couldn’t do any longer. I came to the realization that I was in a very different place than the executive teams of the large corporations with whom I had been working. I just couldn’t work with these big organizations anymore. They felt too soulless and unhealthy to me, too trapped in a rat race of just trying to eke out more profits.”

Wondering what gave a company soul fueled two years of research that resulted in Reinventing Organizations: A Guide to Creating Organizations Inspired by the Next Stage of Human Consciousness.

Not surprisingly, Laloux found that trust ranked at the top of managerial attitudes that create soul.

Trust, Mr. Laloux found, is perhaps the most powerful common denominator in the companies he studied. “If you view people with mistrust and subject them to all sorts of controls, rules and punishments,” he writes, “they will try to game the system, and you will feel your thinking is validated. Meet people with practices based on trust, and they will return your trust with responsible behavior. Again, you will feel your assumptions were validated.”

In other words, bosses (like most others) get what they expect.

While trust can’t be faked, it is trust a function of individual bosses, from the most junior all the way up to the CEO.

That means that even if you are working in a soulless situation you can run your own organization with trust, integrity and soul.

Flickr image credit: Lars Plougmann

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