Posts filed under ‘Main Posts’

Learning when to drive

out car window
Photo courtesy of calico_13 on Flickr, Some rights reserved

Leading is tough. The vision of your department, your company, the completion of the next project, or the careers of those you’re leading can rest on your shoulders. Added pressure changes perception.

My girlfriend and I went on a Best Buy expedition this weekend to pick up a new TV, a WiFi-enabled Blu Ray DVD player (highly recommended), and the Windows 7 OS for a newly built computer that I dying to fire up.

She owns a car in the city and I don’t, so she’s typically driving everywhere. However, the adrenaline from knowing that I would soon be standing in the spectacle that is electronics heaven made me want to take the reigns, so I drove us around town.

San Francisco is a relatively easy city to drive in. It’s small and, for the most part, grid-like. However, I still managed to get us turned around a few times with what I called “short cuts,” and what my girlfriend called “the wrong way.”

Nevertheless, just as one of my short cuts seemed to be turning into a move of pure brilliance I looked over at my girlfriend for a well deserved bragging session. She was gazing out of the car window.

She’s from here and knows SF well, but the way she was staring you would think it was her first trip to the big city. It was an adorable expression (of which she has many), so I lovingly inquired, “What’s up?”

“Life looks so different when you’re the passenger. I’m always driving. Guess I miss a lot of this.”

She said a lot with those words. While I was getting turned around because I hadn’t driven in awhile, it seemed that she was seeing the city for the first time in a long time.

When leading, we see things differently, just like driving. We often get in the driver’s seat, hit the gas, aim and get to our destination as fast as we can. If it’s somewhere that we’ve been plenty of times, we throw it in autopilot and barely remember the trip.

From time to time let someone else drive. This is a growth opportunity for you and others involved. Like my girlfriend, you’ll see things that you’ve seen many times before, but it may just feel like the first time.

“We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time”

– T.S. Eliot, Four Quartets

January 31, 2011 at 10:38 pm 8 comments

Keep it fresh

Old school bicycle

I was walking around town with a friend recently and we came across this beautiful bicycle. I don’t bike, and I’ve never thought of bikes as particularly eye-catching. But this one was. It had that classic feel, but still glistened as if it just rolled off the production line.

We stopped to take pictures, and this sparked a conversation about our respective relationships. The focal point was that after the “honeymoon stage” relationships become much more deliberate. People describe this as hard work, but I’m not sure that’s right. Yes, it takes effort, but I don’t find the “work” to be particularly hard. It’s desired. I want to try, and if I don’t then I’m in the wrong relationship.

Beyond effort, and the shift from natural to deliberate, the thing that I see as most important is understanding why you’re together in the first place. What has made your relationship work to this point? Don’t forget that, and keep doing those things. You don’t need something new and you don’t need to change. Keep what works.

Look at Southwest Airlines. Many view Southwest as the pioneer of the low cost carriers in the United States. However, most don’t know about Southwest’s predecessor…conveniently named Pacific Southwest Airlines, or PSA.

Before airline deregulation PSA owned the California airline market – the largest in the world. They had a high spirit, fun, no frills culture. Their planes had big smiles on the front of them, and their stewardesses were energetic and attractive. They consistently used words like “love” to describe their philosophy on running an airline. Ring a bell?

PSA facePSA stewardesses

Southwest Airlines was founded in 1967 in Texas and, recognizing PSA’s dominance, they decided that this was the model to follow. Pre-deregulation Southwest was forced to operate only in Texas, and PSA operated only in California, so they wouldn’t be directly competing. Given this, PSA was happy to accommodate the Southwest executives with their operating plans, operating manuals and the like.

Southwest’s motto became “copy PSA in Texas.” According to Lamar Muse, Southwest’s first CEO, creating the operating plans was “primarily a cut-and-paste procedure.”

In time, one thing became clear: Southwest understood why PSA was successful and PSA didn’t.

Deregulation came in 1978. PSA strayed into other models (like the fly-drive-sleep campaign), but Southwest, understanding the reason behind the success of the no frills model, outlined it’s ten governing points:

  1. Remain a short-haul, under two-hour segments
  2. Utilize the 737 as our primary aircraft for ten to twelve years
  3. Continued high aircraft utilization and quick turns, ten minutes in most cases
  4. The passenger is our #1 product. Do not carry air freight or mail, only small packages which have high profitability and low handling costs
  5. Continued low fares and high frequency of service
  6. Stay out of food services
  7. No interlining – a/c costs in ticketing, tariffs and computers and our unique airports do not lend themselves to interlining
  8. Retain Texas as our #1 priority and only go interstate if high-density short haul markets are available to us
  9. Keep the family and people feeling in our service and a fun atmosphere aloft. We’re proud of our employees
  10. Keep it simple. Continue cash-register tickets, ten-minute cancellation of reservations at the gate in order to clear standbys, simplified computer system, free drinks in Executive service, free coffee and donuts in the boarding area, no seat selection on board, tape-recorded passenger manifest, bring airplanes and crews home to Dallas each night, only one domicile and maintenance facility

Two of these points have shifted slightly over the last three decades, but they’ve mostly stayed the same. The result: Southwest Airlines was the best performing US stock between 1972 and 2002 – better than Intel, Wal-mart, Comcast, you name it (yes, an airline!).

This is not to say never to change. Rather, know why you’re successful, and what the criteria for change should be. Southwest hasn’t yet come across most of its criteria for change (whatever it believes those might be), and chances are that your relationship hasn’t either.

Southwest love logo

January 26, 2011 at 8:36 am 2 comments

The teenage years

Photo courtesy of the She Knows Parenting Article “Avoiding Bad Influences”, March 12, 2009

I love the energy, creativity and optimism of kids. They’re called cute when they’re babies, adorable through adolescence, and then when they hit their teens they get a bad rap. They can be called immature, naive, rebellious, inexperienced, etc, but that’s not the whole story. I’ve been working with many teen users of my company’s product over the past 6 months and, truth be told, we can learn so much from them.

The way of thinking that comes with this “lack of experience” is envious. Nothing inherently comes with living more years. Sure, there are more opportunities to learn, and more opportunities to grow and mature. But what do we lose in the process?

My time in Silicon Valley has taught me a lot. Most of all…talent is EVERYWHERE. Organizations like Teens in Tech demonstrate this in action. And I’m helping to make sure this trend continues with my involvement in NFTE (great organization, get involved- look at us getting Obama support!).

I’m amazed at the ability of these young users to take a task and accomplish it in an organized and enthusiastic manner. The result may not be perfect, but the process includes passion. Most importantly, they welcome constructive criticism and iteration. A skill we all could use a little more of.

This last point reminds me of the way that companies operate in that period right after “startup” mode. You’ve got your market, your core community, cash in the bank…what’s next? I refer to this period in a company’s history as the teenage years. Not quite sure where you’re going but you’re excited to get there. You’re willing to take risk and optimistic about the future. You’re insecure and searching for identity but you welcome help in getting there. Sound familiar?

We lose something in the post-teenage years. If you’re a company in that stage, try to get those feelings back. Optimism, energy, and passion among your people (the right people) can be your most valuable assets.

January 20, 2011 at 8:15 am 92 comments

Start with a clean slate

I’ve wanted to learn how to code for some time. Not sure what language I want to start with, but co-workers have come with their fair share of suggestions based on subjective favorites. I haven’t started doing anything tangible toward this goal, but Mashable’s Web Development Series has helped with some of the initial thinking.

I was reading a learning Ruby post earlier this morning and saw this quote from Obie Fernandez (whom I give credit for the title of this post):

“When I came over to Ruby from Java, my first instinct was to try recreating a bunch of concepts and architectural patterns that I already knew instead of learning new ones more appropriate to Ruby. Don’t try to bring over your old idioms and patterns, because they’ll just weigh you down.”

clean slate
Photo courtesy of Influence Corp

Leave your baggage behind, and start with a clean slate. Previous learnings are valuable, but sometimes we base decisions on preconceived notions acquired in inapplicable circumstances.

When starting a new job, new project, or new relationship try starting with a clean state. Results I’ve seen from this behavior have been very encouraging. I’ll let you know how it works in my coding adventure.

January 14, 2011 at 6:19 pm 9 comments

The little things

I’ve never been a big TV watcher, and for the past decade my two shows have been Lost and The Amazing Race. If you’re gonna choose two, then those are it, right?

Now Lost is gone forever (though I hold onto an ounce of hope) and the Amazing Race is in-between seasons…so I’ve got nothing. While out to dinner with a friend at this great sushi spot in San Francisco, she told me about a show she’s been watching for years: How I Met Your Mother. She let me borrow the first two seasons on DVD, and I was hooked. Netflix has brought me the rest of the way, and it’s been worth every minute.

Double Date

In the Season 5 episode “Double Date,” Ted, the main character, describes a time when he unknowingly went on the same blind date with the same woman (Jen) twice…7 years apart. When they discover what has happened, he and Jen decide to make the most of it. Walking through their first date, they tell each other what the other did to turn them off: Ted corrected a spelling error in the menu, Jen talked about her cats, Ted didn’t offer his coat when it was cold, Jen didn’t play the “who’s gonna pay the bill” dance, and so on. This causes Ted to ask, “could simple changes have catalyzed a series of events that would have changed our fate, maybe leading to marriage?” (Ted is obsessed with finding Ms. Right). This is a similar vein to the movie Sliding Doors, and it got me thinking that small behavioral changes really can make a big difference.

In business, it can equal not getting VC funding, losing budget approval for an internal project, or even not getting that job. The trick is understanding what personal changes you can make. For me, when I believe in something, I get pretty passionate. This is especially true when I’ve analyzed all the facts, and have had time to think through all the angles. At that point, I’m locked and loaded and you’re not changing my opinion. Well, apparently this has its downsides…

In late 2009 my team was working on the pricing strategy for a new product launch. The meeting with the relevant directors and VPs was set to decide on the final strategy. I came in knowing the right answer. I had the schedule, messaging, and numbers all worked out in my head, and had a great deck to back me up. I walked in confidently and laid out my opinion…which apparently came across less like opinion and more like fact. There were some ideological differences in the room, and my approach set off a tsunami of dissenting points of view. It quickly became 5 on 1, which I didn’t expect, and I knew that I’d caused it. Having my ducks in a row was great, but strolling in and immediately throwing those ducks at everyone didn’t go over so well. Needless to say, I lost.

After leaving the room I reflected. Was this a one time thing for me, or a common occurrence? I realized that I did this all of the time. I’ve always been good at debating “on the fly,” but I never realized that this was due to the fact that when I prepare I attack my audience! In some cases, this can turn out OK. Depends on the crowd. In this case it wasn’t good, and I’ve since changed this behavior. Know yourself, and know your audience. It’ll go a long way.

For more info, Mark Suster has a great post on presenting to different audiences here.

January 12, 2011 at 11:25 am 31 comments

Simplicity, and knowing what to do

Throughout my life I’ve had the privilege (and sometimes misfortune) of being the confidant/adviser for a number of people from many backgrounds, and in a variety of situations. Lucky for me, many of these same people are happy to be there in return.

A statement that comes up 9 out of 10 times during discussions is “OK, that’s the story, and I don’t know what to do.” The truth is that I can’t think of a time when the person explaining the situation to me didn’t give me the answer themselves at some point during the story. Often the issue isn’t around knowing “what to do” but rather “how to do it”…or, better yet, how to do it without hurting someone’s feelings, leaving one’s comfort zone, or releasing one’s position with “pride” intact. This has held consistently whether the conversation was about a serious relationship, family, or even hitting on the girl next door.

confused monkey
Photo courtesy of Michael Keen Some rights reserved

I’ve seen similar situations like this pop up in business many times. About three or four years ago, when I was at McKinsey & Company, I was leading a 6-month long high profile, public facing project that required participation from more than 100 partners and directors across the organization. Getting this many people (including the financial and industry experts involved) herded and heading in the right direction is always a complicated effort; however, for the most part, we had the necessary frameworks, models and outlines in place for the process to go as smoothly as possible.

However, there was one, not so tiny, hitch. You see, the core work of the project was the financial valuation of over 300 privately held organizations, 60% of which had been McKinsey clients, or at least had some affiliation with McKinsey. Since the results would be public knowledge, published in a major global periodical, there was understandable unease from certain partners. For those that don’t know, McKinsey is, for good reason, very protective of client information. And while we, of course, respected and protected all necessary firewalls to ensure that the only data we would be releasing would not be client-sensitive, the fear of negative client reaction remained.

At the time, I fought for “academic integrity” and “clean data” with no compromises. This was my background and what I thought was right, no questions asked. However, this approach put me quite at odds with some powerful voices (….and fists…) at the firm. Not a good position to be in…trust me.

About 6 weeks before deadline I came to a crossroads. I didn’t know what to do. Keep standing my ground? Or “give in” to the pressure of leaving out certain organizations due to potential poor client perception…thus “compromising the integrity” of the whole project. If I didn’t uphold the quality of the data, I believed that it would hurt the credibility of the firm, as well as reflect poorly upon my own abilities. On the other hand, I had a political onslaught from some big names to deal with. Neither of these touched the real issue, but I still went back and forth and complicated the crap out of the choice.

In the end, I chose to fight. The wrong choice. About five days before deadline the whole thing was scrapped. This decision came down to one director whom I’d never met but still managed to spend quite some time on my black list (for what that was worth…pretty much nothing) because I felt like all my work was thrown in the trash. I now understand that the director made the right choice. While I can still understand my position, what I missed at the time was that the choice was simple. Line 1 of McKinsey’s Values is “Put the client’s interest ahead of our own.” Bottom line: dropping the fight was in our client’s best interest. This is the benefit of having a strong value structure – this works both professionally and personally.

Humans naturally complicate everything that we touch. Stepping out of the weeds of a decision can often make knowing “what to do” very clear, whether in the workplace or in that current bad relationship that all of our friends (and ourselves when we’re honest) know that we’re in.

January 10, 2011 at 4:09 pm 1 comment

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About Me

I'm a San Francisco-based strategic thinker who believes that life is only as great as the people you choose to interact with. I love people, and studying business has given me greater insight into how to most effectively develop myself, and my personal relationships. I look forward to discussing people and business with those that find this area as fascinating as I do.

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