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Golden Oldies: Differences Worth Noting

Monday, February 13th, 2017

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

During his time at GE, Jack Welch was lauded and crowned as a god of leadership and management— How times have changed. Welch’s success was dominantly a function of GE’s financial services and he created one of the harshest cultures around—which would have failed miserably with today’s workforce.

Immelt sold off the financial stuff, totally changed the culture from one of suspicion to one of trust,  dumped the forced rankings, just issued a directive that all new hires learn to code and has responded to the current worldwide protectionist mindset by moving from globalization to localization.

Immelt is a worthy role model.

Read other Golden Oldies here.

2185315789_e5d6af6e0d_mThere is a sizable difference between accepting positional leadership when a company is at the bottom and there is no place to go but up and taking over when its at its height—even more so when what was the growth engine and source of extraordinary profits disappears from the economic landscape.

It is one thing to maximize what you have, wringing out every last possible dollar, and investing in innovation for sustainable growth in the future.

It is one thing to create a culture where public shame and the likelihood of termination for missing your numbers rules and changing that to a culture that encourages appropriate risk-taking and never kills the messenger when the risk doesn’t pan out; a culture that understands not every innovation will be a home run, but encourages and applauds the effort anyway.

These are the differences between Jack Welch and Jeff Immelt.

Welch had taken over when the company was in the bottom of an economic cycle. He took over GE in a recession, not at the height of a bubble.

Immelt got the job right after the end of the high-flying 1990s, an era which crowned CEOs with mythical, God-like crowns, and Welch was bestowed the biggest of them all.

Immelt had known before the meltdown the company needed to wean off the leveraged risk from finance that was begun under Welch. … He admitted mistakes, as any good leader must do, and GE more quietly if not humbly went about its business in making the company a 21st century sustainable and reliable profit engine.

The differences are worth noting.

Flickr image credit: laurita13

Ducks in a Row: An (Almost) Foolproof Formula for Success

Tuesday, October 20th, 2015


Is there an eternal answer to the eternal question of ‘what should be learned/done to make oneself promotable’?


The answer was recently expounded upon by Xin Li, a Staff Software Engineer At Google, in response to a question posed on Quora.

I work at Google Mountain View.  Here, if your base salary is around 200K, you are most likely a Staff Software Engineer.  The defining characteristics at that level are:

  1. Go beyond being a technical expert to also being a domain expert.  You need to know what should be done, rather than just how things can be done.
  2. Be an owner.  The buck stops with you.  If something goes wrong with your part of the product, it’s ultimately your responsibility, even if the mistake wasn’t made by you.
  3. Work for your people, rather than have your people work for you.  That is be the one to volunteer to take on the tasks others don’t want to do.  Your job is to make your people look good.  Give them the opportunity to grow professionally, and support them where they need it, and clear obstacles for them, so they can be at their best.
  4. Be a leader and a consensus driver.  Real world problems don’t have cookie cutter solutions, and not everyone will agree on what the right solution is. You need to have a vision, work across teams, and bring people together, resolve differences.
  5. And of course you still need technical chops.  You need to be good at technical system design.  Be able to create an architecture that is as complicated as it needs to be, but no more, and no less.  It needs to serve the requirements of today, while robust enough to be extensible a few years down the road.

If you want to get to this salary level as a software engineer, I think the requirements are fairly similar everywhere.  As you can see, these requirements have less to do with any particular language you may or may not choose.  Focus on delivering value for your employer, and the rest will follow.

Xin Li’s response specifically addressed a software career path, but is universally applicable.

“Focus on delivering value for your employer, and the rest will follow.”

That’s as close to a guaranteed formula to drive success in any career that I’ve ever seen.

Best of all, it’s never too late to start.

Flickr image credit: Chad Sparkes

Ducks in a Row: Cognizant of Cultures

Tuesday, September 16th, 2014


Erin Meyer is the author of The Culture Map: Breaking Through the Invisible Boundaries of Global Business and teach cross-cultural management at the international business school Insead, in Paris.

His article explaining how he learned to identify seminar participants with questions by looking for “bright eyes” is something every manager should read—whether or not they are managing an international team.

Why? Because different cultures are more than a function of Japanese vs. Russian vs. British.

Just as culture differs from country to country it differs by areas within each country.

In the US it’s beyond the difference between Massachusetts and Texas or Nevada and Colorado.

The cultural differences between Northern and Southern California are considerable, as are the differences between New York City and Rochester.

Cultural differences can be even finer; think of the differences between the various Burroughs in NYC starting with attitude all the way to language and almost everything in-between.

Beyond that different cultures can exist next door to each other, passed on through families, friends and social media.

Some cultural differences are obvious, while others are extremely subtle.

But they all have one thing in common.

To succeed, a boss needs to recognize the obvious, tease out the subtle and address them all.

Flickr image credit: John Haslam

What Does It Take to Grow?

Wednesday, October 30th, 2013


Bosses are pretty vocal in describing what they want from their teams, but what do bosses owe their teams in return?

Entire books have been written to answer that question, but the words of E.E. Cummings offer a more succinct response.

“It takes courage to grow up and become who you really are…”

Bosses owe their people an environment that fosters the courage and provides the room to grow.

And they owe them that even when what they become doesn’t fit the boss’ future needs.

Flickr image credit: Oregon Department of Forestry

If the Shoe Fits: Leadership

Friday, February 15th, 2013

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

5726760809_bf0bf0f558_mI rarely mention ‘leadership’, because I believe that given the opportunity to act anyone can and will step up and lead when the time and cause is right.

That’s why I when I coach one of the mantras I offer is “leadership is like manure, it produces the best results when spread around.”

You wouldn’t think founders today would even consider any kind of old world hierarchical management, but they do.

Not overtly, but covertly—and often unconsciously.

It shows in their unwillingness (fear?) to delegate the authority to make decisions along with the responsibility of doing the work.

But there are major advantages to spreading leadership opportunities at every level in your organization.

Foremost is the fact that if you want to hire these days you need to offer your workers meaningful opportunities to grow or they’ll walk.

Growing includes leading and managing—even if it’s only a group of one, themselves.

It means pushing responsibility further and further down in your organization—not just the responsibility—but the authority required to accomplish whatever it is.

And that’s where most founders (and bosses) blow it.

They assign the task, but then require their people to keep running to them for permission to do each step.

I’m not saying to hand over total control, but you need to hand over enough authority to get the job done.

Even when it comes to money, which is often the biggest hang-up, you can still do it.

Create a budget for each task and give the responsibility for spending it to the person responsible for getting it done. Let her decide how to spend it without interference or “help” from you—unless she asks.

If she goes over budget don’t freak out. It’s not that much (or shouldn’t be) in the big picture and if you freak she may never recover.

She already knows that she messed up, so beating on her will accomplish nothing. Sit down calmly and let her walk you through the thinking and decision-making that led to being over budget, discuss it and lead her through a pattern that would have succeeded.

But if it turns out that the error is yours and the estimate was wrong, admit it, don’t try and convince her that someone else could have done it.

People aren’t stupid, she’ll know that the discussion ended as a CYA function for you—as will everyone, since stuff like this never stays secret.

Other great reasons to spread leadership around are increased productivity, more employee satisfaction, fewer logjams when you’re unavailable or traveling, easier staffing and less turnover.

Finally, spread it around because that’s what great founders do—they pay it forward by fostering the growth of more entrepreneurs.

Image credit: HikingArtist

Entrepreneurs: When to Do It

Thursday, January 10th, 2013


People, in all their varied glory are as Spock said, fascinating.

They come in many different flavors and ‘entrepreneur’ is one of my favorites.

Entrepreneurs come in many flavors, too. From the ones that set out to build the next Google, Facebook, Apple or Intel to the micropreneurs who just want to earn a decent living.

Within every business of any size at any stage there are tasks that are prime for avoidance.

Stuff like establishing culture; defining values; developing financial controls, etc.

All kinds of intangible infrastructure that can wait “until things calm down” or “when we’re bigger”

In other words, mañana—and we all know when that is.

Or, as Ryan Blair says, “If it’s important you’ll find a way. If it’s not, you’ll find an excuse.”

Flickr image credit: JD | Photography

Training as Brainwashing

Monday, July 16th, 2012

Yesterday I received the following email from Sean.

Hi Miki, I need some advice. When I graduated I accepted a position with a company I had interned with. The job isn’t terrific and I took it mainly because it gave me the opportunity to learn a lot in a short time and participate in various training programs. I was excited when my manager chose me for leadership training, which was supposed to fast track me into a more senior role. Pretty heady stuff for someone just a year out of college. The problem is that the leadership training feels more like brainwashing. But I don’t really have anything to compare to, so I thought I would write and see if this is typical.

Reading this reminded me of a post late last year by Jim Stroup over at Managing Leadership; I sent it to Sean and decided to share both question and answer with you.

Pod people

As the modern leadership movement’s (MLM) many and various advocates compete for attention, we inevitably find ourselves being bombarded with simplistic insights, each one, its “discoverer” will argue, the very cornerstone of a brave new world that can be built only on its foundation.

As it happens, if you can dismiss the ludicrous promises made for many of these, what is left may still be useful to peruse, even thought-provoking and helpful.

Unfortunately, though, the intensity of our angst over how we each individually relate to the pseudo-vital subject of leadership can make it difficult to distinguish between the product and its packaging.

This is particularly so in the MLM – with its devastatingly misplaced focus on the uniquely special attributes of the individual. Leadership is what you are, they pontificate. What you are – if you are the right things – is leadership, they add with trivializing profundity.

An exceptionally unnerving quality can become embroiled in this unstable mixture when the advocates of a particular insight-based approach come to uncritically accept their own hype. They can then become dogmatic about it, almost fanatical. Even not-so-subtly intimidating.

A manager recently wrote me about just such a leadership sect, if you will. The group is a well-known leadership consultancy of international reach, and the beneficiary of explosive growth built on the back of a run-away best-selling book by the founder. This book presented the well-worn idea – but with spectacularly well-tuned spin in the telling – that there is an inseparable link between success and wisdom in one’s person and private life, and one’s business position and career.

This group had been hired by my correspondent’s organization to present its leadership training program to the outfit’s managers. It seems, though, that some disquiet was caused by the presenters’ almost glassy-eyed praise of the founding principles of the program philosophy. Evidently, it was even described to the attendees as something that would – indeed, that must – have a “spiritual” impact on them.

The last straw for my correspondent was when there appeared to develop real, personal pressure on the attendees to demonstrate their willingness to drink the Kool-Aid. It seems as though an inordinate amount of time was spent ensuring that each attendee had genuinely internalized – rather than merely stipulated to for the sake of the argument – the philosophical underpinnings of the program. Those that resisted drew unsettlingly focused attention, and it seemed as though the program would not progress until they capitulated.

At this point, the alarm bells sounding in this manager’s head succeeded in drowning out the liturgical droning of the acolytes. He left the multi-day workshop, which had been a requirement, and explained to his seniors why.

When you hear alarm bells yourself during any sort of presentation – especially a workshop like this one – always heed them. Try to determine what they might mean. And never let yourself be intimidated by those who want to rush you along into group-thinking lock-step with their positions without allowing you time for calm, clear deliberation. Get out of the hot-house and evaluate the comprehensiveness and consistency of the case presented yourself. Make your own decisions, and draw your own conclusions.

Certainly, don’t turn into a mindless “follower” of a “leadership” of this ilk. If you’re alert to the phenomenon, you’ll be surprised to find how much of this kind of “training” so dangerously fits this mold.

I highly recommend Jim’s work, and especially his book, if you are interested in debunking leadership myths and creating a leadership culture instead, nor is this first time I’ve recommended him to you.

Image credit: Managing Leadership

Quotable Quotes: Thoughts to Grow By

Sunday, July 1st, 2012

http://www.flickr.com/photos/peterpearson/4934913996/The trouble with finding quotes on the Internet is that they are frequently missing attribution. If you know who said any of those missing an author please share your knowledge.

Mark Twain provided a great explanation to all those who don’t understand why failure is often more important than being right, “Good judgment comes from experience. Experience comes from bad judgment. “

It used to  be a standing joke that guys don’t ask for directions (or help) and it seems to be an attitude that more and more women are adopting and proud of it, but they may want to rethink it based on this bit of common wisdom, “If you’re too afraid to ask for help, you will drown proudly.”

The following is dedicated to all those who never let facts influence their opinion, “Artificial Intelligence is no match for Natural Stupidity”

Have you ever wondered why some are doers and others are slackers? Here’s part of the answer, “Hard work pays off in the future, laziness pays off now.” And we are a country of short-term thinkers.

The following should be writ large at all events, especially those relating to business, “The real test of a person is how s/he treats people who can be of no personal benefit now or in the future.”

Those who pass that test will have no trouble living by this advice, “The real art of conversation is not only to say the right thing at the right time, but also to leave unsaid the wrong thing at the tempting moment.”

Finally I’ll share one that I keep taped to my monitor. “The world is full of cactus, but you don’t have to sit on them!”

Flickr image credit: Peter Pearson

If the Shoe Fits: To Be or Not Be King

Friday, June 15th, 2012

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

5726760809_bf0bf0f558_mLast year I reminded entrepreneurs that, like Roman generals, they weren’t gods.

But what about kings?

In an excellent article in U~T San Diego, Neil Senturia and Barbara Bry, serial entrepreneurs who invest in early-stage technology companies, explain why they ask anyone presenting to them whether they want to be rich or be king—those who want to be king are politely shown the door.

The concern is valid, since few founders are capable of scaling their company and that desire to control has a bad impact on the bottom line.

“Founders who kept control of both the CEO position and the board of directors held equity stakes that were only 52 percent as valuable as those held by founders who had given up both the CEO position and control of the board.”The Founder’s Dilemmas by Noam Wasserman, HBS

Not to mention its effect on talent.

Being king undercuts the ability to recruit and keep good people making it impossible to build a world-class team.

People don’t believe authoritarian visions are trustworthy.

People whose voices aren’t heard have little reason to be care.

Kings like to believe that they can buy stars and then own the team.

There are two reasons that doesn’t hold true in the real world.

First, people who join for money will always leave for more money.

Second, the only stars worth having are the ones who join the team.

Would you work for a king?

Or be one?

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Flickr image credit: HikingArtist

A Winning You

Wednesday, April 4th, 2012

874222022_828e94a69a_m  http://www.flickr.com/photos/bradleypjohnson/874222022/

The following quotes are from an interview with Charlotte Beers, former chairwoman and C.E.O. of Ogilvy & Mather Worldwide, and meant specifically for women leaders.

As usual, I find that such insights and advice focused on a certain demographic is applicable to a much broader audience.

Don’t let someone tell you who you are. Keep your own scorecard, and it has to include the good, the bad and the ugly.

This is a humongous insight that qualifies as real wisdom.

Too often our perception of self is, in reality, a reflection of how our various worlds see and treat us; worse, that perception is often colored by negative experiences that happened to the person we were years ago and bear no relationship to who we are now.

Sometimes a company’s culture is a big influencer in how you see yourself, and you have to sift through that and see if it’s a fit. Part of it is knowing yourself so well that you know where you fit, and knowing yourself so well that you know why you work.

I would disagree and say that all of it, “it” being anything you do/try to do/want to do, is knowing yourself (the good, bad, ugly and inane).

Company culture as an influencer is more than sometimes, it is all the time. Culture is the atmosphere you breathe and the values by which you work. If you are not at least synergistic with the culture going in you will either leave or be co-opted into its vision of values.

Beers also talks about what she looks for when hiring.

I’m trying to understand how they used the power to hire and fire and promote and make those kinds of invisible choices that really affect other people’s lives. If they don’t have some generosity of spirit and some quality of teaching, I worry that they’re not going to bring along a strong culture.

I’m trying to find out if they have confidence about the things that matter, their own ability to think and to get to the true center of things.

The importance of these traits to a potential manager pales in comparison to their importance to the individual.

Understanding these things about yourself in conjunction with your scorecard provide a firm foundation on which to tweak the you-you-are, as well as to build the you-you-want-to-be.

Take a minute and read the entire interview—it’s well worth your time.

Flickr image credit: bradleypjohnson

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