A Friday series exploring Startups and the people who make them go. Read allIf the Shoe Fits posts here.
Although I rarely get comments, I would really appreciate any insights you can offer on this subject.
KG sent a press release he thought would interest me; it should interest you, too.
The Montreal-based artificial intelligence startup Lyrebird today unveils its voice imitation algorithm.
With this innovation, Lyrebird is going a step further in the development of AI applications by offering to companies and developers new speech synthesis solutions. Users will be able to generate entire dialogs with the voice of their choice or design from scratch completely new and unique voices tailored for their needs.
First, a quick story.
Years ago a friend got in trouble when someone spoofed his email, catfished him and made a bomb threat to a local school. Fortunately, he was able to prove it wasn’t him.
It turned out that it was a kid who was mad at his teacher.
People are catfished all the time. Usually it’s not a big deal, but sometimes, as with my friend, potential repercussions can be very serious.
Nobody likes being catfished, but think of the damage that could be done using Lyrebird’s algorithm.
How could you explain a threatening or obscene phone call in your voice?
Lyrebird talks about benign uses, such as “personal assistants, for reading of audio books with famous voices, for connected devices of any kind, for speech synthesis for people with disabilities, for animation movies or for video game studios“ and shows off audio examples, including Donald Trump.
Now think what the outcome could be from a highly inflammatory call to Kim Jong-un mimicking Trump’s voice.
Tech people talk all the time about how they are “changing the world” and making it better, but they seem far more focused on enhancing their personal brand and making money, while turning a blind eye to any potential negative effects.
Are they truly amoral?
Or do they even owe humanity at least some consideration of the possible negatives?
This past week we had one bad press event after another and all from different sectors. Let’s review what has transpired so far: Pepsi decided to release an ad that equated the giving of a Pepsi to a police officer as the answer to the protests that have occurred.
It was looked, at the very least, tone deaf, but was also offensive to many who felt Pepsi was attempting to capitalize on societal events that have true impacts.
Our President’s Press Secretary, Sean Spicer, somehow thought it was a clever idea to bring up Hitler as an example of how he was better than the current Syrian regime. If you missed it he essentially said that Hitler never gassed his own people, unlike what Assad has done in Syria.
A basic history lesson will show that Hitler may not have used gas attacks in a combat role but he gassed millions of innocent Jews in death camps throughout Europe. Not exactly a bastion of humanity there.
The event, however, that caught many by surprise was the viral video of a passenger being forcibly removed from a United Airlines flight after it was determined that they needed his seat for an employee.
This man was already seated and refused to leave, since he was a doctor and had appointments he needed to make. When he refused to leave, the police were called and he was dragged off screaming. To make matters odder he somehow got back on the plane, bloodied and rambling.
That event was terrible, but then the CEO of United decided to double down and call the man belligerent. Since then the CEO has issued several apologies, but the damage has been done.
What do these three events have in common? I would argue that in each of these cases the leadership of the company, who typically maintains the cultural norms, has failed.
Let’s dive in and see how this could have been prevented to learn from them in the future.
Pepsi had grand ambitions to have a meaningful conversation around current events and sell their product. One critical flaw here, they utilized their in-house marketing team.
They were operating in an echo chamber with no one to tell them to stop and think for a moment. This is something I personally must do in my own life. I must seek out feedback on a continuous basis to determine if I am on the right path.
My goal for this post is not to get political, but we can look at the Sean Spicer event as a leadership problem. He was hired by Donald Trump, who already had an idea of what Sean was like. Since taking the role Sean Spicer has been in hot water several times, this being the latest in a string of gaffs.
This man is essentially the voice of our President, twitter aside. The culture of the White House has enabled him to act recklessly and uncouthly. Similar to the idea that brilliant jerks are ok, we have a similar issue at stake here.
My take-away from this is to put yourself in the shoes of your listeners. Would what you are saying be divisive to your listeners or just plain wrong?
Finally, we have the United Airlines debacle.
Now the event itself was a shock but we need to look at the response since it came to light.
The CEO started by stating the man was belligerent and the CEO supported his employee’s decisions.
I get it, you want to reassure your workforce that you have their back, but in this case the CEO was also viewing this from a legal standpoint.
There is a law that allows you to forcibly remove a passenger if he is belligerent. The CEO labeled that passenger in such a way to protect himself legally. But we all saw the video and beyond refusing to leave the man really wasn’t much of a threat.
To me, this response is indicative of both pride and attempting to cover up rather than solve. That CEO has surrounded himself with folks that are unwilling or unable to push back and offer insight.
I have done that in my own life as well and so must always reach out to those that share different opinions than I or different beliefs, so I can continue to learn.
As a nation, and perhaps as a species, we reward success above all else.
I am in sales and a mantra I have heard many times is, “exceeding quota covers a multitude of sins”. Did you show up hungover to a team meeting? Did you grope someone at an after-hours event? Did you mouth off to your boss?
These are things I have all personally witnessed at work and the one question always asked was, “are they hitting their quota?”
Why do I bring this all up you ask?
As you may have read Uber is having a tough few months and an even worse week. I won’t jump on the bandwagon to bemoan their culture, but I will say it’s probably not limited to them alone.
Because we have put value in success above all else it is easy to forgive when those companies or people err.
In my professional life I have had an opportunity to work in both large and small organizations. These are all made up of people with strengths and weaknesses, but one common thing I see is those that produce revenue and growth get away with a bit more.
Now this is only anecdotal, but headlines can support this claim to a degree. Uber, Google, Wal-Mart have all had scandals or missteps.
While this may not be indicative of social decay, it points to an opportunity for improvement.
One thing I truly believe is culture begins with self.
The choices we make as individuals are what shape the greater group.
When I see these stories of harassment, abuse or other issues it is not a company that is doing it, it’s an individual. Personal responsibility must be an expected outcome if we want a change.
How can we start?
There is always the Golden Rule or Karma to consider.
If you want to consider science alone we can look to Newton’s third law as reference.
All of these have a common theme — your actions will have equal reactions in measure.
Perhaps that can be a basis for culture moving forward?
Whether you were alive in 1984 or not, you’ve probably seen Apple’s Super bowl ad. It’s reshown almost every year and has been consistently voted the top-rated Super Bowl ad ever made, which is saying a lot.
When the ad was made women were on an upward trend and were respected members of the tech community — unlike now.
Watching the ad again last week I got to wondering.
If that ad were made today would the person throwing the hammer be a woman?
Or would it be the proverbial “twenty-something guy in a hoodie?”
But Mr. Stumpf — whom the members of the House committee personally blamed for the persistent and widespread misdeeds — stuck to the same script he has used throughout the crisis. The problem, he explained, was an ethical lapse among the 5,300 employees, most of them low-level bankers and tellers, who had been fired for their actions since 2011.
But he again rejected lawmakers’ attempts to cast the scandal as a consequence of broader failings in Wells Fargo’s leadership and corporate culture.
A rejection that is the purest bull poop I’ve heard recently.
Having been a customer long before Norwest acquired it in 1998 (acquired, although it was called a merger) I can honestly say that Wells attitude towards customers hasn’t changed — they are a necessary evil with no other purpose than to enrich Wells coffers.
At that time, Wells was known for its cutting-edge technology and lousy customer relations, while Norwest was famous for its customer-centric culture. Analysts predicted that as the acquirer Norwest’s culture would be ascendant.
So much for those predictions.
In case you think I’m exaggerating, there are $10 billion in recent fines to prove I’m not.
As Mr. Stumpf testified, a video screen on the hearing room’s wall displayed a scroll of more than a dozen fines Wells Fargo has paid in recent years, totaling more than $10 billion. The list included penalties for subprime loan abuses, discriminating against African-American and Hispanic mortgage borrowers, and foreclosure violations, among others.
Mr. Hensarling asked whether such fines are simply the “cost of doing business.”
Mr. Stumpf answered no, adding, “I don’t want our culture to be defined by these mistakes.”
Then how else should the culture for which Stumpf is responsible be defined?
Obviously, Stumpf doesn’t have the same sign on his desk as President Truman had on his, let alone buy into its meaning.
It’s amazing to me, but looking back over nearly a decade of writing I find posts that still impress, with information that is as useful now as when it was written. Golden Oldies is a collection of what I consider some of the best posts during that time. Read other Golden Oldies here.
I’ve always been an original, much to my family’s consternation when I was growing up and to friends, bosses and colleagues since.
Being an original isn’t the easy way to go. It’s far more comfortable to be a copy; to follow without question the ideology, religion, parents, friends—anyone or anything that takes away the fear of making the wrong choice.
I don’t remember feeling scared as I careened through my early life taking sometimes crazy risks, but never without doing worst case analysis first.
I even adopted Frank Sinatra’s My Way as my personal theme.
“Recently, there has been external interest and speculation in a few shifts amidst our management team. The design and changes in Yahoo’s leadership team are the result of careful planning to achieve the necessary skills, passion, and the ability to execute growth in our business.’
The people who weren’t good for Mayer were scooped up by the likes of Facebook, Square, Helix and STX Entertainment — not exactly companies known for hiring passionless castoffs.
The exodus isn’t all that surprising, considering Mayer’s management style and need for control and the fact that in the three years she’s been at Yahoo there has not only been no turnaround, but everything is worse.
Of course, these days CEO all provide reasons for whatever is happening, but only rarely admit to being one of them.
As I said last January, this is what happens when people buy into their own wunderkind status.
But the truly sad thing is the ammunition she has provided to the anti-women-leaders crowd who will use her to prove that, in fact, woman don’t belong in the corner office.
I wrote the following in 2008 and, based on a number of recent questions/conversations I think it’s time to post it again, with some light editing.
The Vision Thing
Whether you head a company, run a department, or lead a team, you are responsible for that ‘vision thing’ as it applies to those subordinate to you.
It’s your responsibility to clearly identify (if you are the CEO/Prez/Owner) or articulate (at all other levels) the goals of the company.
Then it’s up to you to involve your people, working with them to turn those goals into specific actions for which they are responsible.
Most people are vaguely aware that work isn’t done in a vacuum, but often individuals, teams, or even departments, fail to truly understand the domino effect created by allowing their schedule to slip.
You can minimize this problem, and improve the quality of your workforce, by making certain that they understand how their own goals, their colleagues, those of the company and its customers and vendors interact.
The biggest rewards at all levels (using whatever incentives are available) should go to those who understand the company’s goals, and ethically do whatever is necessary to achieve them—especially when they put the company’s goals ahead of their own.
None of this is rocket science.
It’s simple enough.
No matter your level, if you’re the boss communicating the vision to your team and aligning their actions with it is your responsibility.
Yesterday I asked if you would hire someone who had been fired.
If you’re a smart boss your response is “absolutely!”
That’s because the reason someone is fired is far more important than the act itself.
Here are some of the more common reasons people are fired — often under the guise of poor performance, bad attitude, etc.
Disagreeing with the boss, whether publicly or privately.
New boss wants his own team.
Not complying with the boss’ requests, including sexual ones.
Doing [whatever] differently than the boss.
Standing up for another employee.
While there are many valid terminations for cause, the validity often depends on your point of view.
Years ago, when I was a recruiter, I presented a hardware test tech, who had been fired, to a favorite client. I told the VP that according to his boss, the tech was fired for creating problems in the lab and talking back to his boss — both of which were true.
However, in talking to his peers I learned that the boss in question had a habit of eating while walking around the test lab and scattering crumbs on the boards being tested.
The tech had asked him several times privately not to eat near the bench and, when the eating continued, brought it up in a department meeting, which led to his being fired for insubordination.
My VP was delighted; he said that was the kind of person he wanted on his team (the tech was hired).
It’s a smart boss who personally checks references (above, peer and subordinate) on all candidates before making an offer, instead of delegating the task to someone else, including HR (which usually checks with HR).
After all, the whole point is to acquire great talent, meaning talent who will be great for you.