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If the Shoe Fits: Mike Rothenberg

Friday, September 16th, 2016

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

5726760809_bf0bf0f558_mIn the beginning the story of Mike Rothenberg, founder of Rothenberg Ventures, is the story of just how far a privileged background and pure chutzpah can take a 28 year-old.

“What if you could combine the service-model approach of Andreessen Horowitz, and the founder-first community building offline and online approach of First Round Capital, with the processing power and reach of Silicon Valley Angels, and the discretion of Floodgate and the judgment of Sequoia? No one else can make the claim that they are even building those pieces. That’s what we’re doing.”

But a lousy manager according to his people.

…a demanding boss who needed to sign off on all decisions including investments, yet rarely made himself available to do so.

Four years later it’s the story of how fast a privileged background, super-size chutzpah, plenty of swagger, negligent management skills and questionable actions can bring you down.

And the very gifts that enabled Rothenberg to start his fund and carve out a name for himself in the crowded valley venture scene — his youth, his Stanford and Harvard degrees, and his dense social network and splashy events — may have set the course for his fiasco.

Read the story.

Look in the mirror.

Review your track record and actions.

Eradicate any similarities.

Hat tip to Anand Sanwal for pointing me to this story.

Image credit: Hiking Artist

Golden Oldies: Narcissism And Leadership

Monday, August 29th, 2016

It’s amazing to me, but looking back over 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.

I wrote this post back in 2009 and since then the number of narcissistic leaders in all walks has exploded. It’s literally a global epidemic, with tech leading (pun intended) the way, although the current crop of politicians is still out front. Read other Golden Oldies here.

narcissus“Leaders tend to be narcissistic, but you don’t have to be a narcissist to be a leader.” –Amy Brunell, assistant professor of psychology at Ohio State University’s Newark campus.

“…narcissistic behavior is a “trait predicting charismatic leadership. People who are charismatic and charming… They think they’re entitled to it. They think they’re smarter than other people and they can get away with it.” –W. Keith Campbell, head of the psychology department at the University of Georgia in Athens.

Narcissism isn’t necessarily bad, but it is growing. When psychiatrists deemed it a bonafide personality disorder in the 1980’s it affected 1% of the population; in 2008 the number stood at around 6.2%.

Most politicians are narcissists, as are many media personalities (neither is surprising), but it seems that more and more business leaders fall in that category also.

There are 7 component traits that are measured.

  • Authority
  • Self-sufficiency
  • Superiority
  • Exhibitionism
  • Exploitativeness
  • Vanity
  • Entitlement

Although I have no proof, I bet that most, if not all, Wall Street honchos would score fairly high on these traits.

“A study published in December in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin found that people who score high in these traits are more likely to be leaders, but these individuals don’t necessarily perform any better and potentially may become destructive leaders.”

So much for the much-ballyhooed ‘charismatic leader’.

Now let’s have some fun.

Go to Take the Narcissistic Personality Inventory and take the test.

Then come back and share your score and whether you believe it fits you.

My score was 11, but if I had taken it 30 years ago I think it would have been at least 5 points higher. (Age is either mellowing me or I’m more realistic:)

There are no right or wrong answers and even if you score off the narcissism charts that doesn’t mean you’re ‘bad’—as with any trait it is how you handle it in everyday life that matters.

More Thoughts on Leadership

Wednesday, July 27th, 2016


I’ve seen many definitions of leadership in the course of my career, but none so accurate as the words of Dwight D. Eisenhower, 34th US president.

Leadership consists of nothing but taking responsibility for everything that goes wrong and giving your subordinates credit for everything that goes well.

Simple, right?

But harder to implement.

Years ago, in a personal setting, I was acting like a prima donna when someone I respected turned a mirror to my behavior.

Not only did I think my behavior was despicable, but I also learned of the destructive power of ego.

My ego.

It was a wake-up call for me.

To counteract it in the future, I created a little mantra that I repeat to myself relatively often.

“Ego is the enemy that confuses what I want, and destroys what I create.”

Ego is THE enemy.

More dangerous than laziness, ignorance or stupidity.

More perfidious than cowardice or fear.

And, sadly, more common across society with every passing year.


Ducks in a Row: KG on leadership strength, vulnerability — and asking questions

Tuesday, July 26th, 2016


A couple of days ago KG sent me a link to an article questioning previous research, which found that bosses asking questions engender positive reactions and asked me what I thought.

But a 2015 study suggests that there’s one glaring exception to that phenomenon. According to the findings, men in leadership positions wind up looking less competent when they ask for other people’s help.

As usual, I found KG’s thoughts well worth sharing. I include mine mainly to add clarity to the flow.

Me: With regards to the “clever experiments” I don’t think a bunch of MBA students, who are often all-knowing and judgmental, are a good guide to managing an age-diverse team.

KG: Possibly, but as I’ve remarked in the past, the general culture appreciates “strong” leadership. See Bush II or Trump as examples. Or Steve Jobs and Larry Ellison.

Me: True, but leadership still plays out within each specific culture and doesn’t always travel well. Also, your examples are the top dogs; there are leaders at every level and I don’t believe it plays out the same.

KG: Within a culture, little dogs follow top dogs. If the top dog displays certain behaviors, then the little ones will follow suit — we’ve all seen this in organizations.

The issue is that if it is expected that leaders are more than other humans, then we have a false view of leadership.

It is good for stroking the egos of those who are in leadership positions, but it leaves them exposed and ignorant. It should be unnecessary to appear as a demigod to be an effective leader in any culture.

In certain situations a leader must cut through and make decisions, either with limited visibility or high risk. In addition, there are many situations (especially if the group is in crisis) that a dictatorial style may be necessary. These, however, should be limited both in time and scope, because if they are prolonged they will end up damaging collaboration and initiative.

The truly great leaders, both from history and present day business, are those who are good at asking questions and keep asking questions. Genghis Khan was known for his insatiable curiosity and desire to learn, and he was also the most successful military commander in history.

In effect it is our laziness and fear that makes us want to create demigods — beings who know better, with more power and understanding.

We want them to tell us what to do, rather than having to think ourselves, because thinking takes work and research. It is simply easier to hand it over to someone else who “knows better.”

Having done so, we are surprised when our leaders are corrupt, their promises broken and our lives affected negatively.

Can we continue to absolve ourselves of responsibility? Isn’t a leader just another human being with the same levels of fallibility and constraints that any other?

Maybe they are in different areas, but I have yet to meet another human that is good at everything or sees everything.

And even if these people exist, they will still be constrained by their perspective, which is determined by their position in the organization, background, etc.

Only by humbly asking questions, and daring to do so, will a more complete picture emerge.

This is because everyone has a piece of the puzzle, and sometimes this has to be cajoled out.

This is the true art of leaders, because the great ones then make decisions with better information and achieve better results.

Entrepreneurs: Soledad O’Brien and Starfish Media Group

Thursday, June 23rd, 2016

Soledad OBrien

What was your work history before you became a founder?

Many founders don’t have senior management experience, let alone CEO/President or COO experience.

Some are young; others were non-executive managers, team members or individual contributors.

Which is OK, if they recognize that having the title and filling the shoes are two different things.

That’s not just my comment; it’s what award winning journalist Soledad O’Brien, founder and CEO of Starfish Media Group, said about herself.

Another challenge was that I was successful in my previous role because I really worked hard and took a lot of responsibility for making things good. But that’s not actually a great skill for being a boss. The job of the boss is to help other people reach their goals and their dreams.

At what point will I actually grow into this job, because I have the title? At what point will I actually be making decisions like someone who is the C.E.O. of the company? I would say it took a solid year before I felt good about it.

And I’m willing to bet, based on her own words, that she has little interest in hiring “stars,” who are usually full of attitude and ego.

You hire for character and teach people skills. And environment is very important to me. It’s important to me that people aren’t unpleasant and that they treat each other respectfully. It’s hard to be creative when there’s someone or something that’s really irking you.

So are you a person of integrity who makes the environment a really nice space? I will watch how they treat the person at the front desk versus me.

Whatever kind of startup you have, take a few minutes to read the O’Brien interview.

Then look in the mirror and accept that no matter what your background is you probably have a steep learning curve before you become your title.

Flickr image credit: Starfish Media Group

If the Shoe Fits: a Tale of Two Startups

Friday, April 29th, 2016

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

5726760809_bf0bf0f558_mThis is a short post, because one of the linked articles is long and both are critical reading if you are, or planning at some point to be, a founder.

Founded in 2007, Powa Technologies is the perfect poster child for everything an out-of-control founder can do — from raising just over $200 million in debt and equity in less than three years, giving Powa unicorn status, to sending it down the drain.

At best, the collapse of Powa looks like a wildly overambitious attempt to force consumer behavior to match the ideas of a self-styled visionary. At worst, Powa seems to be a case of willful ignorance and a failure to acknowledge serious shortcomings, at a cost of hundreds of millions of dollars to investors and hundreds of jobs for staff.

NGINX (pronounced “engine X”) started as an open source project in 2002 and became an actual company in 2011. Today powers 49% of the top 1,000 busiest websites in the world, including NASA, GoGo Inflight Internet, WordPress.com and Wikipedia. Since then it has raised only $41 million in 4 rounds and although its core product is still open source, it is generating substantial revenue from its paid services.

To actually make money, Nginx has a few menu items. First, Nginx Plus, an actual paid-software product that goes beyond the free version and offers customers deeper tools for managing their web apps.
Second, it has a consulting business, where its team of experts go in and help customers install and manage their Nginx-based architectures. That’s especially important as companies move toward microservices, which can be a bold new world for companies used to building software the traditional way. That business is growing quickly, Robertson says, with 300% more revenue in 2015 compared to 2014, though Nginx doesn’t disclose specific financials and he declined to comment on whether it’s profitable.

However, neither the investment nor the revenues have led to the typical lavish, San Francisco startup style.

Still, Nginx is keeping things fairly lean. Even with all of those users, its headcount only broke 100 recently, Robertson says, and the company tries to avoid “bloat” by adding only those features that users really need.

Read the articles.

Understand the actions and reactions.

Absorb the lessons.

Just be sure to sort them correctly.

Image credit: HikingArtist

Ducks in a Row: Falling Star Marissa Mayer

Tuesday, January 19th, 2016


There is nothing wrong with Marissa Mayer’s compensation.

Yahoo! Inc.’s Marissa Mayer was the country’s highest-paid female CEO. The 39-year-old was awarded $59.1 million in 2014, making her No. 3 among the eight women on the Bloomberg Pay Index…

However, there is a lot wrong with Marissa Mayer’s performance.

The problem is, as As Wally Bock succinctly said last year, “We live in a world of microwavable answers and quick fixes” — and bosses see stars as quick fixes,” and Yahoo’s board thought Mayer the star would quickly fix Yahoo.

Hiring stars is often a function of bragging rights, better known as “mine’s bigger than yours.

But in a world where where people want star status in order to brand themselves, boards and bosses would do well to remember that they don’t come with any kind of money-back guarantee — in fact, they more often come with some kind of golden buyout.

Most star performers are a product of the ecosystem in which they perform. Change the management, culture, especially culture, or any other part of that ecosystem and stars may fall.

And never forget that that ecosystem is permeated by that insidious little detail that impacts success and is so often ignored in discussions — the economy.

As everyone knows, Yahoo isn’t Google, so…

A rising star at Google has become a falling star at Yahoo.

And a lesson learned for thinking bosses at any level, especially those responsible for hiring  executive and strategic talent — the past is no guarantee of the future.

Flickr image credit: Tim Spouge

Golden Oldies: Are you (in)competent

Monday, January 18th, 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.

This particular Oldie is one of my favorites; probably because it poked such large holes in all the giant egos back in 2000. And it should do the same thing to the even larger egos walking around today. Read other Golden Oldies here.

Gotcha! I see all you readers twisting your arms in order to pat yourselves on the back because you know that even though you could improve at least you’re not incompetent.

Are you sure of that?

Way back in 2000 I read about research that stuck in my mind, an unfortunate reminder to me that I’m not nearly as good/smart/interesting/funny/etc. as I’d like to think I am.

It was done by Cornell’s Dr. David A. Dunning, who describes his research in the field of social psychology this way, “My social psychological work focuses on two related phenomena. First I am interested in why people tend to have overly favorable and objectively indefensible views of their own abilities, talents, and moral character. For example, a full 94% of college professors state that they do “above average” work, although it is statistically impossible for virtually everybody to be above average. Second, I am interested in how people bolster their sense of self-worth by carefully tailoring the judgments they make of others. That is, people tend to make judgments of others that reflect favorably back on themselves, doing so even when the self is not under explicit scrutiny.”

According to the research, “most incompetent people do not know that they are incompetent. On the contrary. People who do things badly are usually supremely confident of their abilities — more confident, in fact, than people who do things well…One reason that the ignorant also tend to be the blissfully self-assured, the researchers believe, is that the skills required for competence often are the same skills necessary to recognize competence.”

Isn’t that encouraging.

How bad is it? “Asked to evaluate their performance on the test of logical reasoning, for example, subjects who scored only in the 12th percentile guessed that they had scored in the 62nd percentile, and deemed their overall skill at logical reasoning to be at the 68th percentile.”

However, since the skills that make you competent are the same that you use to evaluate your ability, if you’re good at something you’ll know, right?

Wrong! “Unlike unskilled counterparts, the most able subjects in the study were likely to underestimate their competence.”

So, damned if you do and damned if you don’t.

The research did find that, “…a short training session in logical reasoning did improve the ability of low-scoring subjects to assess their performance realistically…”

But if you don’t know, why would you get the training? Or should you get it as preventative medicine.

Or maybe, just maybe, you should actually start listening to those around you and really hearing what they’re saying—even if it’s not complimentary, makes you uncomfortable and you don’t agree.

It doesn’t mean that “they” are always right, but if multiple people are all saying (by word or body language) the same thing, it’s very likely that they know something about you that you don’t know.

Listen, learn, think, change.

If the Shoe Fits: Founder Ego Can Kill Your Company

Friday, December 18th, 2015

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

5726760809_bf0bf0f558_mIf you truly want to succeed it’s important not to let your ego get in the way.

Or, as Marva Collins said, “If you can’t make a mistake, you can’t make anything.”

During the first startup boom in the Nineties it was called “founder ego,” but there were those, such as me, who just called it stupid.

Perhaps there is a new term I haven’t heard or it’s gone underground, but founder ego sinks more startups than you can imagine.

The thing to remember is that you

  • don’t’ know more than everybody else; and
  • can’t do everything better than anybody else.

You will screw up, you’re human, but people will think more highly of you and trust you more if you admit it and move forward by unscrewing it no matter where or who the solution comes from.

Thanks to Wally Bock at Three Star Leadership for sharing Collins’ quote.

Image credit: HikingArtist

Ducks in a Row: Losing One’s Humanity

Tuesday, November 17th, 2015


I’ve been writing a lot about Silicon Valley culture and, since I don’t live there any more, I usually cite/link to articles from those deep in the tech world who do or who write me directly.

Yesterday a question came in on my Quora feed that asked about the differences working in SV vs. the rest of the country.

If you ever wondered if media descriptions and commentary were hype, propaganda, sour grapes, ignorance or a combination thereof, then you really should take time to read the responses, especially Ken Miyamoto’s.

Miyamoto is a non-tech guy who, at the decrepit age of 39, moved to SV and ended up working for “one of the the most badass and innovative tech startups.”

We have this culture of brilliant kids that have a power that they can implement from a numbers perspective, but often (not always) fail miserably at implementing from personality perspective, yes, but even more so from a social perspective within the workplace and anything involved with that. (…)

There’s a clear disconnect, socially. I don’t know if it’s the generation. I don’t know if it’s the inability to balance responsibility of  power and position or ego or what have you. But there’s clearly a disconnect. (…)

The SV is an environment that is overly self-serving, self-rewarding, with little to no practiced responsibility of the social aspect of “the game.”

Beyond that, the SV proved too often be an overly analytical and knee jerk reactionary culture. Here you have young kids thrust into powerful (big or small) positions and, well, they act like young kids.

So to me, the Silicon Valley is a perfect storm of brilliance, power, new culture, money, money, money, and utter lack of social responsibility at times. (…)

That’s the major difference. Going from student to “rock star” so quickly. It leads to ego, blindness, paralysis of analysis, etc. And that culture is ever-spreading with Venture Capitalists young and old ready and willing to profit from it. 

Too many of the tech crowd have lost touch with the rest of society, don’t possess the skills to re-enter it and don’t see this as a problem, but the long-term result of losing touch with humanity is to eventually lose one’s own humanity.

(Funny how one’s mind works. I’m not sure why, but writing this reminded me of Isaac Asmiov’s Foundation series. In short, the series tells the story of mathematician Hari Seldon, who spends his life developing a branch of mathematics known as psychohistory, a concept of mathematical sociology. It is disrupted by an outsider known as the Mule, who was not foreseen in Seldon’s plan, so there is no predicted way of defeating him. Although I can’t connect it directly to the current love of data analytics, I’m sure it does and highly recommend it to you.)

Flickr image credit: kristy

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