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If The Shoe Fits: Plato’s Soft Success

Friday, August 4th, 2017

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

5726760809_bf0bf0f558_mEngineers constantly channel Wernher von Braun, “One good test is worth a thousand expert opinions,” preferring AB tests and data points to anecdotal evidence or everyday been there/done that experience.

This is a serious problem for most founders who are

  • engineers, and
  • inexperienced (AKA, young).

Tests, no matter how good, and data points fail miserably when it comes to hiring people, let alone managing them.

Proof of this comes from no less a data embracer than Google, which scrapped an algorithm that was supposed to predict successful hires, its famed brain teaser questions and rigid responses to recruiter questions.

Such was the experience of Quang Hoang and his two partners when they started Birdly, which pivoted three times before finding a solid product/market fit.

…the tumult alienated most of Birdly’s employees, who quit. Hoang attributes the turnover to his own inexperience as a manager.

We, along the way, made many mistakes in management,” Hoang tells Business Insider. “We lost many great developers.” 

Enter Plato, a new name and a new team, focused on providing techies with soft skill mentoring.

The idea, says, Hoang is that an engineer’s education is focused heavily on “hard skills” around programming and systems design. The rest has to be learned. And for programmers-turned-leaders, it’s often the “soft skills,” like management and leadership, that need the most attention.

To people such as myself, who for decades have been involved in teaching and honing those skills in managers across all fields, not just tech, it’s more of a ‘duh’ factor.

But that’s OK; just don’t call it “thought leadership.”

Most great management concepts and skills aren’t decades old, they’re centuries old, constantly updated using language that will resonate with the current target audience.

Probably one of the best pieces of leadership/management advice comes from Lao Tzu and dates to the fourth or fifth century BC; I’ve quoted it multiple times over the last ten plus years.

As for the best leaders,
the people do not notice their existence.
The next best,
the people honor and praise.
The next,
the people fear;
and the next,
the people hate…
When the best leader’s work is done,
the people say, “We did it ourselves!”
To lead the people, walk behind them.

Difficult advice to follow in a world of personal brands and excessively large egos.

Image credit: HikingArtist

Entrepreneurs: What Leadership Looks Like

Thursday, October 13th, 2016

KG emailed me this cartoon and asked what I thought.

leader-bossI responded that I had a better image of leadership, only mine was drawn with words.

I’ve shared them here before, but a reminder never hurts.

As for the best leaders,
the people do not notice their existence.

The next best,
the people honor and praise.

The next, the people fear;
and the next, the people hate—

When the best leader’s work is done,
the people say, “We did it ourselves!”

To lead the people, walk behind them.

–Lao Tzu

Now that’s what I consider a beautiful image.

Image credit: Anonymous via the Internet

Entrepreneurs: Who to Interview

Thursday, May 19th, 2016


I try to be polite, but sometimes it’s difficult.

Sometimes I just need to shut up in order to avoid telling my host that I think he is the stupidest person I’ve been around lately.

“Clay” was talking to a group of new entrepreneurs; going on at length about how brilliant he is at hiring talent for his company.

He said that knew when he should interview someone just by hearing a few basic facts, like education and general experience; no need for detailed specifics.

When he finally stopped bragging and patting himself on the back just one guy had the temerity to disagree, saying that wasn’t enough information to make such company success-critical decisions.

Clay turned and asked me to do four thumbnail sketches of candidates I knew and he would prove it was enough.

Here are the four profiles I provided.

  1. BSBA, some programming in college; started in customer service and worked his way up through the executive ranks.
  2. Some college; 12 years of programming and management experience.
  3. Harvard MBA w/ 25 years progressively more responsible positions in consulting, sales and management.
  4. MIT BS; more than 40 years programming experience in a broad array of technologies. Strong entrepreneurial bent; excellent manager.

Clay laughed and said he wasn’t surprised I included mostly “oldies,” since I was one of them.

He went on to say that he would pass on 1,3 and 4, because they probably wouldn’t fit into the fast pace of a startup. The second was a possibility, although he didn’t sound particularly aggressive.

Poor Clay, his investors won’t be pleased; he just passed on

  1. Marc Benioff (52)
  2. Sheryl Sandberg (47), and
  3. Ray Kurzweil (68)

He did think number 2 was a possibility, although not a strong one.

But Mark Zukerberg (32) probably wouldn’t fit in.

Flickr image credit: Jon Phillips

Ducks in a Row: Lars Dalgaard on Being Human

Tuesday, October 27th, 2015

https://www.flickr.com/photos/eiriknewth/474679387/This great leadership information from Lars Dalgaard, general partner at venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz, is applicable to every boss, whether startup or Fortune 50.

The biggest thing in my life is really daring to be human, and that’s the approach I take to the working world. We could all be so much more human, but we don’t allow ourselves to do it. I think it’s because we’ve been brought up thinking that when you’re in a business role, if you show any emotion, then that’s the opposite of being tough.

The funny thing is that you’re actually a stronger leader and more trustworthy if you’re able to be vulnerable and you’re able to show your real personality. It’s a trust multiplier, and people really will want to work for you and be on a mission together with you.

Dalgaard’s approach is the opposite of so many of today’s bosses, who act as if every day is a tough mudder experience.

To them, being vulnerable is the same as being weak — and weak loses.

Worse, by acting on that belief they, in turn, force the attitude on their people.

The end result often turns a workplace into a warplace, with X% of your people trying to out-tough each other and the rest running for cover.

So give them, and yourself, a break by recognizing that you’ll go further, and have more fun getting there, by being, and showing, that you are human.

Flickr image credit: BK

Customer Love vs. Competitor War

Monday, January 19th, 2015


Who do you channel? Sun Tzu or Lao Tzo?

I’ve cited Lao Tzu multiple times over the years, but, unlike most management gurus, not Sun Tzu’s Art of War.

I never liked battle analogies; never understood the idea of “killing the competition.” In spite of what I was told was my naiveté, it seemed to me that loving the customer was more important.

While those battle terms are still around, it seems like I was on to something way back then.

According to Frank Cespedes, Senior Lecturer at Harvard Business School and author of Aligning Strategy and Sales those fighting words get the focus wrong.

Strategy gurus constantly use analogies with battle plans for “competitive advantage” versus the enemy. But the metaphor is not suitable because business, unlike a war or battle, is not primarily about defeating an enemy. Business is primarily about customer value: targeting customer groups and tailoring products, sales and other activities to serve those groups better or differently than others. (…)  Peter Drucker emphasized, “The purpose of a business is to create a customer.” That’s also the purpose of any business strategy: make customers, not war.

Winning customers is actually pretty simple, delight them, amaze them and provide them with something they either need or want.

Do all that and the competition will fade away in the eyes of your customers.

And theirs are the only eyes that matter.

Image credit: Kevin Wong

The Destruction of American Workers

Monday, October 20th, 2014

https://www.flickr.com/photos/dpurdy/2954271099What’s going on?

Why is there such a disconnect between management and minimum wage workers?

A disconnect that goes beyond all logic.

A disconnect that treats low wage workers more like serfs.

Two weeks ago it was Walmart’s efforts to enforce a dress code at their employees’ expense.

Now it’s companies such as Jimmy John’s sub shops requiring minimum wage workers to sign noncompete agreements.

But who knows, perhaps there is a proprietary trick to spreading mayo that I’m not aware of.

California outlawed most non-compete clauses on the basis that people have a right to earn a living.

And then there is the sexual harassment of low wage women workers.

The study showed that women reliant on tips made up the highest share of those who had experienced harassment and that those who lived in states where the tipped minimum wage was $2.13 an hour (the federal minimum for tipped workers) were twice as likely to experience sexual harassment as those who lived in places where a single minimum wage standard applied to all workers.

Whether large corporation or small business, it seems that those in the upper levels, who are financially secure, place little-to-no value on those who actually keep their company running.

And as for morality, well, that comes down to whether more employers decide that basic human decency requires viewing their workers not as interchangeable cogs to be paid as little as possible and worked to the bone but as valuable partners in building a company for the long term.

Centuries ago, when describing the actions of leaders, Lao Tzu ended by saying,

To lead the people, walk behind them.

Today it reads,

To lead the people, walk upon them.

Flickr image credit: Derek Purdy

If the Shoe Fits: Which Kind of Leader are You?

Friday, October 17th, 2014

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

5726760809_bf0bf0f558_mIn an interview Robert Herjavec said,

If you can’t inspire the people around you, you are going to fail. If you can’t inspire the people around you, you should go sell real-estate, because that is probably one of the only businesses where you could make a lot of money working completely on your own. But I think if you want to build a great business, you’ve got to bring other people along, and nobody wants to be managed. People want to be led.

His comment reminded me of a post from a few years ago that I believe is worth repeating.

Ducks in a Row: Leadership or LeadershIt?

If you truly want a culture of innovation, then you also need to create a culture of leadership.

Last week I commented that if the ‘i’ in leadership is capitalized it changes leadership to leadershIt.

Whereas leadership can be a great motivator, leadershIt is a guaranteed demotivator.

Visions and other leadership functions done with an eye to self-aggrandizement aren’t likely to resonate whether done by positional leaders, leaders in the instance or those who aspire.

Last year I wrote

Because initiative and leadership are synonymous, leadership needs to be pushed out of the corner office and spread throughout the organization; doing so will encourage growth, creativity and innovation.

If leadership is the fertilizer then culture is the water, without which nothing will grow, and people are the seeds from which ideas come.

By spreading leadership evenly through out your company garden and watering regularly, leaving no unfertilized or dry patches in which a seed will be stunted or die, you assure yourself a bountiful harvest that will be the envy of your competitors. (Two follow-up posts have more on this topic here and here.)

This isn’t a new idea, just a new way of phrasing it; Lao Tzu said it best 4000 years ago, “To lead the people walk behind them.”

The one thing that remains constant in all these discussions is that you always have a choice—this time it’s between leadership and leadershIt.

Image credit: HikingArtist

All You Need to Know to Be a Great Boss

Wednesday, March 19th, 2014


Many in the business world turn to Sun Tzu’s Art of War for guidance in their business dealings and as a basis for their company’s culture.

However, I’ve always preferred the teachings of Lao Tzu to underpin culture, because they provide a more solid platform to attract, motivate and retain the best people for any organization.

My favorite quote describes the perfect mindset and behavior for any boss who wants to be known as a leader.

As for the best leaders,
the people do not notice their existence.

The next best,
the people honor and praise.

The next, the people fear;
and the next, the people hate—

When the best leader’s work is done,
the people say, “We did it ourselves!”

To lead the people, walk behind them.
                                             –Lao Tzu

In case you’re not sure how to put that into practice, Lao Tzu offers this advice.

Be gentle and you can be bold; be frugal and you can be liberal; avoid putting yourself before others and you can become a leader among men.

Image credit: Wikipedia

If the Shoe Fits: Servant Leadership Wrap-up

Friday, June 7th, 2013

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

5726760809_bf0bf0f558_mA couple of weeks ago we took a look at Jim Heskett’s HBS discussion about why servant leadership isn’t very prevalent, considering how effective it is; this week he sums those reasons up.

Servant leadership is experienced so rarely because of trends in the leadership environment, the scarcity of human qualities required, demands that the practice places on the practitioner, and the very nature of the practice itself.

It’s easy to spot the major traits that get in the way.

“Ego (that) makes it difficult to ‘want to serve'” (Randy Hoekstra), “greed” (Madeleine York), and “An unhealthy desire to control” (Judesther Marc).

There is more; ake a moment and read the summation, it’s short.

Next look at yourself in light of the expressed reasons preventing the spread of servant leadership.

Then look at your company’s culture and how well that culture fosters and recognizes those who practice servant leadership.

Now fix yourself, so you can become a model of servant leadership, and then fix whatever needs fixing in your culture so that that kind of leadership will naturally rise to the top of your organization.

A few thousand years ago a gentleman named Lao Tzu said it all quite elegantly in just 45 words.

As for the best leaders,
the people do not notice their existence.
The next best,
the people honor and praise.
The next, the people fear;
and the next, the people hate—
When the best leader’s work is done,
the people say, “We did it ourselves!”

I can’t think of a better mantra to build your management around.

Image credit: HikingArtist

Quotable Quotes: All about You

Monday, January 16th, 2012

These days people are told to ‘build a personal brand’ and that everything they say and do needs to be in sync with their brand. By distilling and incorporating the essence of the following quotes you’ll develop a unique brand that will differentiate you from the pack.

Let’s start with something Cecil Beaton said that offers some great basic guidance, “Be daring, be different, be impractical, be anything that will assert integrity of purpose and imaginative vision against the play-it-safers, the creatures of the commonplace, the slaves of the ordinary.”

Intelligence is something that many people believe sets them apart, but, as Rene Descartes points out, “It is not enough to have a good mind; the main thing is to use it well.”

Sandra Carey reminds us that using it well doesn’t mean only book-learning, “Never mistake knowledge for wisdom. One helps you make a living; the other helps you make a life.”

Lao Tzu took that advice several steps further several centuries before it Carey said it, “Knowing others is intelligence; knowing yourself is true wisdom. Mastering others is strength; mastering yourself is true power.”

Long before Tony Hsieh married happiness to corporate culture at Zappos, Herman Cain offered up this bit of wisdom, “Success is not the key to happiness. Happiness is the key to success. If you love what you are doing, you will be successful.”

In case you wonder if you really are happy you can use this great yardstick from Andy Rooney, “If you smile when no one else is around, you really mean it.”

And Ralph Waldo Emerson was kind enough to provide a yardstick with which to measure your success through the entire span of your life, “To laugh often and much; to win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children…to leave the world a better place…to know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived. This is to have succeeded.”

Flickr image credit: loop_oh

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