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Golden Oldies: Mine’s Bigger Than Yours

Monday, January 25th, 2016

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’m no happier about the AIG and other bonuses paid to screwed up Wall Street banks, but I’m not sure why any of us are surprised.

“In the largest 25 corporate bankruptcies between 1999 and 2002, while hundreds of billions of dollars of investor wealth and over 100,000 jobs disappeared, the Financial Times found the “barons of bankruptcy” made off with $3.3 billion.”

Giant compensation packages, guaranteed bonuses and platinum parachutes are excused by Boards and executives as necessary to attract the “best and brightest,” but here’s what’s really going on.

The ‘name’ demands outsize compensation/stock options/guaranteed bonus/etc. in order to validate their ‘brand’.

Those responsible for hiring not only meet the demands, but even exceed them in an effort to attain or sustain the company’s reputation as a better home for ‘stars’—the more stars you have the greater the bragging rights— mine’s bigger than yours in high school locker room talk.

Now let’s consider the folly of this attitude.

Those hiring often seek a name brand in the mistaken belief that the brand comes with a warranty that guarantees good results.

But no matter who you hire you’re actually paying for their past performance, which is always influenced by

  • circumstances—boss and company positioning in its market and industry
  • environment—culture and colleagues;

and let us not forget that minor factor

  • the economy.

The hiring mindset is that everything the brand accomplished was done in a total vacuum and dependent only on the brand’s own actions, therefore changing every single surrounding factor will have no impact on performance.

Put like that it sounds pretty stupid, doesn’t it.

This is one of the prime reasons that so many CEOs bring their ‘own team’ over when they move, as do managers all the way down the food chain—they know they didn’t do it alone.

CEOs aren’t like movie and rock stars whose very names draw consumers into spending money—nobody ever bought a product from GE because Jack Welch was CEO, nor do they carry Jobs’ iPods—so why pay them that way?

Moreover, assuming that performance occurring during an expansion is a valid yardstick for performance in general, let alone a downturn, is sheer idiocy.

You have only to remember the difficulties faced by people whose management skills were honed between 1991 and 2000, the longest expansion in our history. When the recession hit in March of 2001 they had no experience whatsoever of how to drive revenue or manage in a down economy.

That recession and the previous one in 1990 lasted only 8 months each. The longest recession we’ve had was 2 years, January-July 1980 and July 1981-November 1982, and that one had a 12 month break in it. This means there are a very small number of managers with any actual experience managing in anything even close to what’s happening now.

The current recession officially started in December 2007, so it’s already 15 months old and the end isn’t in sight.

What experience makes these folks the ‘best and brightest’ for today’s world?

Just what the hell are companies still guaranteeing oversized compensation and exorbitant exit packages when now is definitely the time to pay for future performance—no guarantees.

Sad, isn’t it. Seven years and nothing’s changed, in fact, it’s gotten much worse.  

The wealth of the richest 62 people grew by more than half a trillion dollars in that last half-decade, while the wealth of the poorest 50 percent of people globally decreased by more than $1 trillion during the same period.

Image credit: flickr

Ducks in a Row: the What and How of Culture

Tuesday, September 15th, 2015


Steve Blank wrote a great post about changing culture in larger organizations. It’s a must-read for anyone in business, government or non-profit who is looking to juice innovation in their organization.

Blank agrees that there are four components to culture.

Two McKinsey consultants, Terry Deal and Arthur Kennedy wrote a book called Corporate Cultures: The Rites and Rituals of Corporate Life.  In it they pointed that every company has a cultureand that culture was shorthand for “the way we do things at our company.” Company culture has four essential ingredients:

  • Values/beliefs – set the philosophy for everything a company does, essentially what it stands for
  • Stories/myths – stories are about how founders/employees get over obstacles, win new orders…
  • Heroes – what gets rewarded and celebrated, how do you become a hero in the organization?
  • Rituals – what and how does a company celebrate?

He goes on to explain what needs to be done for “innovation to happen by design not by exception.”

While I agree with everything he says, I believe he left out a most critical component.

In reality it should be a subset of values/beliefs, but it is rarely thought about by bosses — they either do it or do the opposite automatically.

It can be summed up in four words, don’t kill the messenger—Pete Carroll, coach of the Seattle Seahawks, is a master of this mindset.

To be truly innovative means trying new stuff and a part of trying new stuff is accepting that it won’t always work.

Corporate culture in general and many bosses individually can’t seem to wrap their minds around the idea that some things will fail — it’s the dark side of the ‘but me mindset’ at work.

What they, and anybody setting out to change culture and encourage innovation, need to understand is that it only takes killing the messenger, i.e., responding negatively to the person who brings bad news, once to negate whatever progress had been made and put the effort back to square one.

Flickr image credit: Eirik Newth

Ducks in a Row: Robert Sutton—Scale Means People

Tuesday, May 13th, 2014


Stanford management professor Robert Sutton has a new book out called Scaling Up Excellence: Getting to More without Settling for Less.

In it Sutton says, “Scale means the spreading of excellence from the few to the many”.

As usual, Sutton is right on and TechCrunch columnist Andrew Keen is way off.

So is Bob Sutton right? Is everything in Silicon Valley really about people? And are the most successful companies those that are best able to scale their organization?

I say that because anywhere, not just in Silicon Valley, but in every town, city and country, it’s about people.
It’s about people because there is no such entity as a company.

What is a company other than a piece of paper showing that the government recognizes its existence and that it owes taxes?

Is it the office buildings that house it? The manuals that explain it? The stock that represents its value?


A company isn’t an entity at all. It’s a group of people all moving in the same direction, united in a shared vision and their efforts to reach a common goal.

And that group attitude is best summed up as culture, which is a living/growing/changing depiction of those people and their MAP (mindset, attitude, philosophy™).

Google, 3M and P&G are examples of a number of people who are all eager, or at least willing, to move in the same direction.

Whereas at Yahoo people move in multiple directions or refuse to move at all. In part that reflects the differences of people hired over the years through multiple cultures that were not all that synergistic.

Yes, it’s the people. It has always been the people all the way back to our hunter ancestors.

And it will always be the people.

Flickr image credit: Kitty Schweizer

Mindfulness Means “Look Up”

Wednesday, May 7th, 2014

It’s likely you’ve seen this video already, but I’m posting it anyway because it says what I’ve been saying forever.

Its focus is living mindfully, although none of the commenters I scanned through seemed aware of the concept.

Some agreed, while some thought it was “self-righteous” bullsh*t,” but if that’s true then the teachings of Confucius, Aristotle, Plato, Buddha, Jesus and all the saints, prophets and rabbis also qualify as self-righteous BS. (I found it amusing how many of the nay-sayers fell back on four-letter words to express themselves—probably the extent of their vocabularies.)

Mindfulness is a conscious way to live life and applies extremely well when building company culture.

YouTube credit: Gary Turk

What are the Most Important 21st Century Skills?

Monday, April 28th, 2014


If you were asked what skills are in shortest supply in the workforce you would probably think first about computer and related skills.

While that is correct, some simple soft skills are just as difficult.

This year’s pair of April surveys confirmed that, as in previous years, employers are having trouble finding people with advanced computer and interpersonal skills, punctuality, and reliability.

Think about it.

Problems finding people who understand that they need to

  • consistently show up at the agreed upon time; and
  • always do what they say they will do.

Not exactly rocket science, but a substantial problem.

The first shows that 36% of businesses in the manufacturing sector that responded to the survey are having moderate difficulty finding workers who are punctual and reliable, while 11% report great difficulty in finding workers with those traits. In the services sector, it’s not as bad — 22% of respondents report moderate difficulty finding punctual, reliable workers, whereas only 3% report great difficulty.

The interpersonal skills are a far more significant concern.

In an age when face-to-face communications is giving way to texting, IMing and email, the ability to work in close proximity with people and not only get along, but bond to create high performing teams, is becoming more and more difficult.

Hard skills, from learning new programming languages or moving from technical work on a financial program to developing mobile apps are learnable, as are all hard skills.

Changing and redirecting the character traits that lead to being punctual and reliable or teaching interpersonal skills to a (probably) uninterested party are most often exercises in frustration.

These are the core reasons why attitude and aptitude are more important than current skills when hiring and a subject we’ll look at in more depth this week.

Image credit: Denise Krebs

A Dangerous Generational Split

Monday, March 24th, 2014


Generational splits are nothing new; throughout time those under X have clashed with those over X.

While the typical under/over split is alive and well, there is a new dimension in the world of technology and it’s clearly on view in Silicon Valley.

In pursuing the latest and the coolest, young engineers ignore opportunities in less-sexy areas of tech like semiconductors, data storage and networking, the products that form the foundation on which all of Web 2.0 rests.

This is far more serious than differences in fashion and music; this split has serious implications for the economic future of our country. (Read the article; it’s important)

Building the latest, greatest app might make the creator rich, but even a few Google’s and Facebook’s aren’t going to do much to rebuild the middle class.

Doing that takes thousands of jobs at a multitude of skills and levels

The kind of jobs created by breakthrough technologies that create entire new industries as did semiconductors.

But that kind of innovation requires focus and time—not just a few months to a fast cash out and bragging rights.

So what’s the answer?

Somehow we need to find a way to make that kind of work cool.

Flickr image credit: opensourceway

If the Shoe Fits: Security? Who Needs It?

Friday, March 21st, 2014

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

5726760809_bf0bf0f558_mLaunching an app is all about speed, often because there is so little difference they need to grab users before similar app gains traction.

So, like the construction company that cuts corners and in doing so delivers an unsafe structure, consumer apps are often launched with little regard to security.

“There’s so much focus on acquiring customers and delivering products and services that security is not top of mind.” –Tripp Jones, a partner at August Capital, a Silicon Valley venture capital firm.

This isn’t an insider’s secret, but one that is well known to both the industry and those who prey on it.

The result is that as an app’s popularity skyrockets, so does its appeal as a hacking target.

Tinder, the popular dating app, last month acknowledged flaws in its software that would let hackers pinpoint the exact locations of people using the service. Kickstarter, the crowdfunding site, also said last month that hackers had gained access to customer data, including passwords and phone numbers.

Combined with previous hacks, the Target breach in December may have been the final straw for millions of people who are turning back to cash.

“…debit/credit card and personal data has also been reported stolen from Michael’s, Neiman-Marcus, Sally Beauty Supply and kickstarter.com. Plus, there’s the mother of all “oopses:” An Experian -owned database holding a stunning 200 million consumer records was cracked by a Vietnamese identity theft ring, it was revealed earlier this month.”

If people turning to a preference for cash transactions really is the start of a trend as opposed to a short-term fear reaction startups are especially vulnerable.

Even younger users, who seem to care little about privacy, will react negatively if (when) they are subject to identity theft.

More and more people are coming to understand that “secure site” is more oxymoron than fact.

Data security is much like the real-world infrastructure that politicians rarely fund, because the return in votes is too low.

Much like the bridge that needs to fail before people support the money required to upgrade it, sites need to be hacked before management is willing to focus on security.

Image credit: HikingArtist

Ducks in a Row: Once Again Old is New

Tuesday, March 18th, 2014


I find it amusing how frequently I read something that is presented as totally new when, in fact, it was done decade(s) previously.

In this case, it was the agreement not to poach each others engineers, supposedly masterminded by Steve Jobs.

Just how far Silicon Valley will go to remove such risks is at the heart of a class-action lawsuit that accuses industry executives of agreeing between 2005 and 2009 not to poach one another’s employees.

The last time I remember this happening was in the late Seventies/early Eighties by the HR organizations in a group of semiconductor firms, including National Semiconductor, AMD and Intel, among others I can’t remember.

The story was broken by a gossipy semiconductor-focused newsletter to which everyone in the Valley subscribed, shared and denied reading. (Sadly, I can’t remember the name, although it was published by an individual who lived near Santa Cruz.)

Word was that being caught reading the newsletter could get you fired.

When the information surfaced it was the EEOC that fined the companies involved.

It was a stupid corporate move then and just as stupid now, but back then the workers affected didn’t do anything; how times have changed.

Flickr image credit: Harold Heindell Tejada

If the Shoe Fits: When is “Startup” and “Innovative Culture” an Oxymoron?

Friday, March 7th, 2014

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


Two questions:

  1. Are you working to build a culture of innovation in your startup?
  2. Do you live the startup mindset of 100 hour weeks, all night hackathons, 24/7 availability and no time for vacations?

If you answered ‘yes’ to both you’re in trouble, because a yes to the second sooner or later will nullify the first.

According to Marc Barros, co-founder and former CEO of Contour, there are five actions you can take to avoid killing off your golden egg, i.e., your culture of innovation.

Here they are, with my caveats (follow the link to read the originals).

  1. Offer Unlimited Vacation: while this isn’t always possible, and may not even work, making sure your people, including founders, take real vacations, which means no email, texts or emergencies. They should last a minimum of three days, but a week is much better. And if having you/them gone for that time will really crash and burn the company you have bigger problems than you realize.
  2. Let Employees Work Remotely: in addition to working remotely physically whenever possible be sure to provide an environment that promotes mental remoteness. In other words, they don’t have to think/work/act like you to achieve the desired results.
  3. Ditch the Meetings: make sure that those you do have are short and productive.
  4. Nix Department Goals: goals at all levels—department, team, personal, should always focus on what needs to happen to achieve specific, major, annual company goals (never more than three).
  5. Give Plenty of Feedback: just don’t make giving constant feedback an excuse or cover for micromanaging.

One of the biggest actions that Barros doesn’t mention, but is implicit in what he does, is trust.

If bosses don’t believe that their people really do care that the company succeeds and trusts them to make it happen then they will be unable to implement any of this.

In the comments section, Mick Thornton, who worked at Safeco Insurance (definitely large and definitely old-line), talks about the success of the team he was on.

The biggest keys to success for our team was a manager that understood broad goals saying things like “Here’s what we want the end to look like, now go figure it out. Let me know if things start to slide or go south, otherwise work how you want to meet the deliverable.”

Image credit: HikingArtist

Ducks in a Row: Good Culture is a Habit

Tuesday, March 4th, 2014


Culture is recognized as the “make or break” for companies of all sizes, so it’s logical for bosses at all levels to look for insights on creating and retaining a winning culture.

Zappos and Southwest are often held up as icons of good culture, but they also know that sustaining their culture doesn’t happen by accident—it takes consistent hard work at all levels.

They know that certain behaviors and actions must be actively managed, as well as made visible to the organization at large.

Companies with the most effective culture seek out and continually reinforce what Charles Duhigg, author of The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business (Random House, 2012), calls “keystone habits.” A keystone habit, Duhigg has noted, is “a pattern that has the power to start a chain reaction, changing other habits as it moves through an organization.” Companies that recognize and encourage such habits stand to build cultures with influence that goes beyond employee engagement and directly boosts performance.

The inherent problem that accounts for why these cultures are rarely created and, when they are, don’t have the lasting power bosses would like to see is a long way from rocket science.

The problem is, in fact, extremely simple.

Culture is more talked than walked.

Good cultures require well-thought-out, planned conscious effort.

And not just at conception, but for as long as they exist.

And sustained, well thought-out, planned, conscious effort requiring ongoing hard work is not the hallmark of most companies from startups through the Fortune 50.

Flickr image credit: David DeHetre

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