Feb 032013
 


Many operate from a belief that organizations, and lives, can be made successful through well-planned strategies and goals, supported by tightly-scheduled to-do lists. I have always questioned this belief system, and have never lived my life this way, Perhaps I am just looking to justify my obstinacy, however, a new book, Antifragile by Nassim Nicolas Taleb, has added fuel to the fire that burns within.

 
In 1980, as a candidate for a Master of Science in Management at the Sloan School at MIT, I enrolled in the requisite course in corporate strategy, taught by Professor Mel Horwitz.
 
We spent the semester studying exceptional corporations—those that exhibited results orders of magnitude better than average. The thesis of the course was simple: if we peer into the minds of management and discern the strategies that led down the road to success, we could repeat, or surpass their triumph.
 
Near the end of the term, I asked a question. “Dr. Horwitz,” I began, “if we were to take a random sample of 1000 companies today, follow them for 20 or 30 years and plot their results on a chart, those results would undoubtedly form some sort of distribution, perhaps even a normal curve. Most of the companies would have moderate results—a bit above or below the average. There would undoubtedly be those whose results were far below average, and a few with results that beat the average in spectacular ways; it is the nature of the law of averages. That being the case, what is the possibility that we spent the semester simply studying the statistical outliers and nothing more. Is it possible their results had little to do with an extraordinary ability to peer into the future and divine a path to success? Could we simply be studying the lucky?” Suffice to say the kindly Professor Horwitz did not like the question.
 
Enter Nassim Nicholas Taleb. Taleb believes what we did in graduate school—showing in hind-sight that a carefully followed strategy led to great results—is equivalent to lecturing a bird on flying, and then, after they have taken flight, claiming it was our cogent, insightful words that delivered the remarkable result. To fly is natural. After months of experimentation and “tinkering,” a fledgling takes flight by courageously stepping out of the nest and trusting she merely needs to spread her wings.
 
Creativity, innovation and success are driven, not by well-planned strategies and tightly-schedule action plans, but through rabid tinkering and experimentation. Doubtful? Two words: Steve Jobs.
 
My thinking was clarified dramatically in a recent conversation with an intensive care nurse. She has been with hundreds the moment they passed from this life to the next. “The expression I see most often as a life ends is regret. It is as if they are asking ‘Is this all my life amounts to?’”
 
I don’t know what allows a person to leave this life with a deep sense of satisfaction, but I have a hunch. It is not by checking one last item off a life-long list. I have never witnessed a bird with a checklist in advance of first flight…or for that matter, blueprints on how to build the nest from which to leap.
 
If I never have the courage to spread my wings and leap into the unknown, will the final expression on my face be a fait accompli?
Mar 312012
 

 

Intimacy is being seen and known as the person you truly are.
                                                         Amy Bloom
In my February blog entitle “On Being Fully Human,” I wrote about three leaders, each of whom allowed inhumanity to slip into the “edges” of their lives.
When I penned those words, I had not yet read Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs. I have now, and it’s clear he did more than allow inhumanity to slip into the edges of his life. The brash, rude manner in which he treated people was deeply ingrained into nearly everything he did from a very young age. Often, the nicest thing he would say about another’s creative idea was “Well, it’s a start.” More likely he would call them stupid, crap…or worse. He was famous for rejecting another’s idea, only to return weeks later claiming it as his own. In his view, most people were “A players” or “bozos”. There was little space betwixt his neural synapses for other categories of humanity.
As I read Isaacson’s rendition of the life of Jobs, I attended a lunch sponsored by Aurora University with brief remarks by Kent Keith, CEO of the Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership. The Greenleaf Center is based on management philosophies espoused by Robert K. Greenleaf during the latter half of the 20th Century. The leader as servant is similar to the Level-5 leader described in the best-selling book Built to Last by Jim Collins and Jerry Porras. The Servant/Level 5 leader is one who leads with humility. They show care and concern for those who must do the organization’s bidding. Using traditional definitions, these leaders have more intimacy with their employees. Greenleaf, Collins and Porras all proposed that the leader who is first-and-foremost servant, is best prepared to create an enduring organization. A leader at the other end of the spectrum might create short-term success, but the chances of an enduring legacy are remote.
Enter Steve Jobs. As you read the Isaacson account, intimacy is perhaps the last word you would use to describe his relationships. Had Collins, Porras or Greenleaf been handed a nameless profile of Jobs and his management style, they likely would have concluded he had no chance of doing precisely what he did: create two—Apple and Pixar—of the most admired brands on the planet and a company that, even after his death, retains one of the highest market values of any corporation ever conceived. It would be difficult to call his 40 years of revolutionizing computers, movies, music, cell phones and more, short-term success. Many who worked with him, in spite of the way he treated them, speak of him affectionately, even reverently.
Few books leave me in tears as I read the final words. This one did and I have wondered why. Perhaps there is an unexpected clue in the words of Amy Bloom where I began this entry. I hope, before I die, I will have looked deeply, discovered who I truly am, and found the courage to be seen and known as that person…and thereby have a truly intimate relationship with the world. I have come to conclude that Steve Jobs, with all his faults, did precisely that his entire life. Perhaps it was that intimacy that enabled him, and those around him, to change the world.

 

Feb 232012
 

Note: The following is being published this week in the March issue of Batavia Business, the monthly publication of the Batavia Chamber of Commerce.

When I began these words, I would have thought that being human and being inhuman were opposites and mutually exclusive. But now I wonder.

The spectrum of words that define “inhuman” range widely. At the brutal end are words like barbarism. At the softer end, even “lacking kindness, pity, or compassion” are invited to this party.

Steve Jobs, was a creative genius, and he could ignite fire in those around him. And yet, his ability to frighten, intimidate and reduce others to tears is legendary.

Was this brutal side an integral part of his success? If someone had found a way to polish Jobs’ rough edges—soften his abrupt, angry, impatient manner—might Apple have succumbed to one of its near-death incidents? After Lisa (a commercial failure in the 1980s), might Macintosh have remained only a variety of apple you eat. Might iPod, iPhone and iPad never have seen the light of iDay?

Was Jobs’ willingness to reduce others to rubble what ensured the innovations that made it to his office were more refined, more dramatic and more creative than they would have been if he treated product developers and researchers with kindness, pity and compassion? Did those invited to his office, knowing their careers could be made or broken by Jobs’ quixotic reaction, work harder, refine further, create more before daring to walk under the transom to his office?

The 1984 Los Angeles Olympics were organized under the attentive, uncompromising, often critical eye of Peter Ueberroth. Those Games were to become the first privately financed Games and resulted in a of $250 million surplus that supported youth and sports activities across the United States. Compare that to the Montreal Games eight years earlier, which left that city burdened with debt for 30 years. For reimagining the financial foundation of the Games, and perhaps rescuing them from ruin, Ueberroth was awarded the Olympic Movement’s highest honor: the Olympic Order in gold. He was named Time magazine’s Man of the Year in 1984.

I once had the great joy of spending time with Dee Hock, founder and CEO Emeritus of Visa International, considered to be one of the greatest businesspersons of the 20th century. Similar to Steve, Dee was a visionary and innovator. Visa—or BankAmericard when first formed—saved the credit card industry from turmoil and eventual ruin with Dee’s radical view of the electronic transfer of bits and bytes that represented money. If you read Dee’s book Birth of the Chaordic Age (sadly renamed and reissued as One from Many) he too was very hard on those around him during his career, Like Jobs and Ueberroth, Dee had a vision that was so clear, so inviolate that compromise was simply not possible. When I asked him why, he looked at me and said, “I had a sense that if I didn’t take a stand, something in me would die.”

I hold each of these leaders in the highest esteem. Each opened doors to innovation that might have remained closed for many years without them. And yet, each let some edges of inhumanity slip into their lives. Or perhaps, our definitions of inhuman simply do not allow us to be fully human.

Feb 032012
 
At the end of a very successful, and completely redesigned, Chamber event, I turned to a member of the Board and told him I felt much of the success emanated from having turned many of the evening’s details over the young man who was emcee. “You should do that more often!” he suggested. The lightness of the moment did not ameliorate the painful way the comment pierced my psyche with its implication that I am otherwise too controlling. I need to tease apart, and try to understand, what the comment means, and how I will use it to move forward.
Having planned and executed hundreds of events in my life—everything from small, casual lunches to community events capturing the attention of tens of thousands, I have long wandered the hallways that define event planning and project management.
There are many doors that can be traversed in moving from concept to completion. Some lead into rooms filled with riches. They included “vision”, “mission”, “goals”, “values”, “teamwork”, “planning” and “attention to detail”.
There are other doorways labeled in less-flattering ways. “Overly-controlling”, “my way or the highway” and “closed to new ideas”. These are the rooms one is not supposed to visit along the journey. But I wonder?
The 1984 Los Angeles Olympic Games were organized under the attentive eye of Peter Victor Ueberroth. Through his leadership, those games became the first privately financed Games and resulted in a surplus of nearly $250 million that supported youth and sports activities across the United States. Compare that to the Montreal Games just eight years earlier that left that city with debt that burdened its citizens for 30 years. For reimagining the financial foundation of the Games, and perhaps even rescuing them from ruin, Ueberroth was awarded the Olympic Movement’s highest honor: the Olympic Order in gold. He was also named Time magazine’s Man of the Year in 1984.
In the last few months, the creative genius of Steve Jobs, founder and visionary behind Apple computer, has been splashed across every medium of communication imaginable, including those that wouldn’t have existed had it not been for Jobs’ vision.
But if you read reports of these two visionaries, they traversed all transoms I have seen along the hallways I have traveled. Each used vision, mission, values and teamwork in extraordinary ways. But make no mistake, for each, much of their vision was so clear and inviolate—contained so much personal passion—there was to be no compromise.
I once had the great joy of spending time with Dee Hock, founder and CEO Emeritus of Visa International, considered to be one of the greatest businesspersons of the 20thcentury. Similar to Peter and Steve, he founded Visa on a vision and set of values on which he simply refused to compromise. When I asked him why, he said, “I had a sense that if I didn’t take a stand something in me would die.”
I do not, nor will I ever, deserve to even be in the shadow of the likes of Peter, Steve or Dee. But in my own very, very small way, I have plied my creativity to help midwife a future slightly brighter than the past that preceded it. There have been many times I have crossed the thresholds of the politically correct doorways. And many times I borrowed from the rooms generally banned, and, when standing my ground on those things I felt were critical, I wielded the less desirable weapons of “overly-controlling” and “closed to new ideas”.
So let me return to the comment that sparked this discourse. I have a vision and set of values upon which the event in question has been built over the 8 years it has been under my watch; principles upon which I would never compromise. I turned the details of the evening over to our young emcee because I have worked with him enough to know he truly understood. And while he built the evening in new a creative ways, the foundation was never under attack. If “You should do that more often” means allowing for creativity within the boundaries defined by the vision and values I believe are essential for success, I am in full agreement. If I allowed those values to be violated, however, I too would feel as though “something in me would die.”
Dec 032011
 

 

Note: I wrote the following for the December issue of the Batavia Chamber newsletter. And while it speaks directly to issues related to entrepreneurs, I think the message of how we prioritize the moments of our lives has broader meaning.
In the context of our lives, even five minutes is perhaps too much.
Two critical activities for any entrepreneur are networking and proposal writing. Recent conversations about both called me to think more deeply about our lives and the moments that constitute them.
“The founder of BNI says 6-1/2 hours per week is about the right amount of time to spend networking. What do the rest of you think?” That question began a conversation at a recent Chamber meeting.
The statement is, in isolation, meaningless. It’s like saying $60,000 per year is enough money, 75 years is sufficient for a lifetime or 5 inches of rain per month is too much. If a child dying of cancer requires treatments costing $10,000 per month…or a scientist publishes a seminal work at age 80…or a tropical rainforest supports untold valuable species, arbitrary limits are not only meaningless, they leave us practically and emotionally destitute.
The metrics I use, and the boundaries I place on them, must be considered in the context of what the world needs from the time I spend on this planet.
If it seems plebian to compare business networking with illness, seminal works or the planet’s ecology, I disagree. Steve Jobs said that awareness of the limits of his life added meaning to every moment he spent. If your life, and the lives of those around you, is left unimproved by the time you spend together, then five minutes per week is too much. If, on the other hand, you are facile at making connections that move you and the world forward, then perhaps 60 hours per week is not nearly enough.
Only you can decide what it really means to move you and the world forward. Few people understood this better than Mike Jacobson, a former Chamber member stolen from us by pancreatic cancer. He never left an event with fewer than three people he could contact in the ensuing days. It was mostly about business, but Mike’s love for Batavia was deeply embedded in his definition of what it meant to move forward. He understood that the emotional content of his journey outweighed the practical.
What then of proposals? I once had a friend who claimed he never wrote a proposal until the client agreed, in advance, it would be accepted.
A proposal is an agreement about how the joint worlds of writer and client will improve when signed and implemented. Whether we want to admit it or not, proposals are often accepted or rejected before a single word is committed to paper. Too often, the phrase “Send me a proposal” is used to indicate the conversation is over—no agreement has been made that will satisfy the practical and the emotional needs of the client.
When I began searching for words to etch the boundaries of networking and proposal writing, I imagined the tasks as only tangentially related. To the extent they are viewed as emotionless steps in the process of creating business, we miss something important about life. Each is an agreement with those around us about how we can jointly move humanity forward both practically and emotionally. If the time we spend is aimed at anything less, then indeed, even five minutes is too much.