Lessons from the Olympics

Phelps2The Olympics are always inspiring with the amazing results achieved by the competing athletes. It’s easy to look at someone like Michael Phelps and decide that he provides no inspiration for the average person because he has been groomed for over a decade to excel at this event due to his extraordinary natural talent–and the reality is that yes he has.

What is easy to ignore in Michael’s life-story, however, is that he has worked extraordinarily hard to get to the position that he is in. Unbelievably extraordinarily hard. And so has every athlete at the Olympics. They’ve found what they are good at and have worked extraordinarily hard at doing their best at it. This is not only the secret of successful athletes in all sports but also the secret of successful entrepreneurs and technologists worldwide, and a model of success that can be accessed by anyone: find what you are good at and work extraordinarily hard at it. Don’t be lulled into the job model that has been created for those who work at something that merely defines something they can do. There is an unspoken job model that is not taught in school and never really discussed, but it is a model for those who find themselves in the unique position of being able to work at what they are best at:

If you resonate at your job, ring it as hard as humanly possible.

I am constantly amazed at talented people who have the ability to do great things in their professions…yet they don’t achieve greatness because they treat their job like the average job that they’ve been taught to expect: working nine-to-five (well, nine-to-six is the norm these days) and only do what they are asked to do.

Finding what you are good at and working as hard as you can at that is, frankly, a luxury that most people don’t have. Most people aren’t able to spend their salaried time doing what they do well—most people just work to make a living no matter what the job. Being paid to do what you do well is an opportunity that perhaps one can only truly appreciate at the end of one’s career—to be thankful for being paid to be best at exactly what one is in fact best at. The satisfaction of this unique situation is not about being paid for it, of course; it’s about being judged at what one does best and being given the opportunity to excel at what one does best. If one takes that opportunity, that is.

OlympicsThat opportunity, of course, defines the lives of Olympic athletes. And nothing defines them more than matching their talents to their training and working as hard as they can to be best as they can. In the spectacular finish of the American 400m freestyle relay, the finish of Jason Lezak was spectacular: his performance seemingly pre-destined for the history books, and an achievement celebrated worldwide. Yet what’s not seen nor appreciated by the Olympics viewers is the incredible—and I mean incredible beyond what most people can ever imagine—incredible work ethic that Lezak executed to put himself in the position to be able to make one of the most amazing comebacks ever.

Randy Pausch, the Carnegie Mellon professor who became an online sensation when he gave a Last Lecture after being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer (and who passed away soon after), provided simple yet insightful advice about achievements and work ethic:

The brick walls are there for a reason. The brick walls are not there to keep us out; the brick walls are there to give us a chance to show how badly we want something. The brick walls are there to stop the people who don’t want it badly enough. They are there to stop the other people!

Work hard. Work harder than others. Work hardest if you are really good at it. Challenges simply exist for you to overcome then if you are up to it.

Most people complain about their jobs and the perceived difficulties and obstacles that they experience. This tip is for the few of you who want to be able to look back on your career with sanguine satisfaction rather than a melancholy attitude towards all that you simply put up with: the brick wall is there for a reason, so let your colleagues complain about it while you scale it, put it behind you, and face new challenges that few ever progress far enough to even come up against.

Success Lessons from Coach Carr

CarrCoach Carr has resigned as head coach of the University of Michigan’s football team. He leaves as the fifth most winningest coach of all time in the Big Ten, having brought a national championship to Michigan for the first time in half a century. Yet he leaves at the urging of most Michigan football fans because he failed in one non-negotiable requirement of his job. I am a Michigan fan, my cats are named Maizey and Blue, and I appreciate and value what Carr has done for this program. Yet I agree that Coach Carr needed to go.

And this is a key message to be heard by all highly skilled and seemingly successful employees everywhere, from Silicon Valley to around the world. Take notice of Coach Carr.

I am sad to see Coach Carr go, I really am. He achieved greatness for Michigan over his 13–year tenure. Similar success at other universities would have ensured his iconic status and everlasting love among those fans and alumni. But Carr failed to make Michigan competitive against Ohio State University, and at the University of Michigan that is a breach of the unstated non-negotiable requirement to be head coach. Even though Carr has a career record of 6–7 against OSU, his record against OSU’s current coach is a mere 1–6. Not good enough.

Reading the details above of Coach Carr’s extraordinary success at Michigan, the unknowing reader may not understand why his departure was inevitable. His departure may be even more perplexing given the value that Carr brought to his players. By all accounts, Carr is one of the most decent coaches in Division I football. Coach Carr has been a players’ coach, looking out for the well-being of each student player in his team, providing life-lessons that will help them well beyond the last time that they touch a football, and as a result engendering their everlasting loyalty towards Carr. Players truly love him.

But failing on one key requirement has forced Carr’s departure from Michigan.

And this is a key message to every motivated, achievement-oriented worker in the US. Know the fundamental requirements of your job. If you don’t know, ask. Because if you don’t meet those requirements—that one key “achieve this or else,” possibly unspoken component—then you will be lucky to survive no matter how successful you are in all the other aspects of your job. Just ask Coach Carr.

SF Mayor Gavin Newsom, whom I recently posted about, sent this message loud and clear to senior city officials: two months ago, he told them to submit letters of resignation. All 400 of them. Now, most if not all of those letters he intended to reject. So why would he ask them to submit a resignation letter if he didn’t plan on accepting it? I believe Newsom wanted to send the exact same message that I’ve been talking about: that no matter how well they have played the political system and become comfortable in their job, San Francisco officials have a non-negotiable requirement to meet the needs of the citizens of San Francisco. Fail to meet those needs and your job is at risk.

Such messages can be valuable wake-up calls to anyone—the mere knowledge of their existence can be job-saving. Unfortunately, most people don’t have the in-your-face warnings received by those under Newsom, or have the obvious demands of their job laid bare like they are to every Michigan football coach. Which is why every employee, particularly those who have achieved success in their job, needs to understand what their job’s non-negotiable requirements really are, and whether their successes satisfy those key requirements or are simply nice-to-haves.

Coach Carr knew what his key requirements for success were, but unfortunately in sports one’s success does not lie in one’s own hands. Carr was unable to succeed in the most important demand that his job required because of many factors out of his control. And for this failure I am very sad. Carr is a great coach and deserves a better retirement than he is getting. His memory will be blemished in a way that many will call unfair. But I also understand that there are non-negotiable requirements that must be met by any coach of Michigan Football. And under Coach Carr, those requirements were not met.

So, with a lump in my throat, that’s the end of story for Lloyd Carr, a man whose career almost anyone would envy and admire. Do envy and do admire.

As always, Mitch Albom has honorable and tear-worthy words by which to remember Coach Carr. For what it’s worth, I still occasionally re-read Albom’s near-poetic words written upon Bo Schembechler’s death. Bo spoke about the honorable Michigan tradition when he first took the Michigan head coach job. Both Bo and Carr have indelible added to that tradition.

Newsom Insights

San Francisco is a surprisingly small city considering its world reputation (7×7 miles with a population of 750,000), and it’s not uncommon for city residents to run into people of note in ordinary situations here.

I found myself last night sitting beside and talking to San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom in the cafe section of a downtown SF restaurant. Mayor Newsom is someone whom I have admired since he’s been in office—he’s made many tough but innovative decisions about how to run the city. This is a particular challenge because the mayor of San Francisco has to make decisions that are impactual and assessed on a local, national, and international scale—pressures that the mayors of most cities do not have to worry about. It would also be easy for a mayor of this city to simply focus on local issues (after all, it’s the residents who will re-elect him) and ignore the city’s potential influence on the rest of the nation and the world. In my opinion, Newsom has been effective at these different scales exceptionally well—addressing the demands of city residents such as myself while making decisions that will impact the rest of the country and the world.

Because of this, Newsom has also been subject to pressures and criticisms at the local, national, and international scale. Problems with the homeless remain a constant pressure on the mayor locally, Newsom’s brief gay marriage allowance has been blamed nationally for the results of the ‘04 presidential election, and just this weekend the mayor seems to have upset China over his decision to cancel a planned trip to China in order to oversee the recent oil spill in the San Francisco Bay. Yet despite these pressures he still has to deal with more mundane city issues such as making an appearance at the opening of a new tourist-friendly plaza in downtown SF.

Despite the incredible challenges that face prominent politicians such as the mayor of SF or NYC, business executives typically views politicians as a disreputable lot whose skills who have little to offer those seeking to improve their practices in corporate America. If one wants to learn how to be a better manager, entrepreneur, or CEO, one reads books by Lee Iacocca on how to reinvigorate a company or articles in the Harvard Business Review on how GE injected innovation into their development process. Certainly, I’ve tried to learn from prominent executives and entrepreneurs that I’ve met in Silicon Valley. Whether it’s working alongside a serial founder of successful startups, having business meetings with famous VCs, or chatting over dinner with chief executives of a multi-billion dollar technology companies, I’ve felt that I’ve learned successful traits and habits from many business people with whom I’ve interacted. The one group of people I have not looked to nor expected to find guidance from is politicians.

That’s why I feel that I had an epiphany while talking with Mayor Newsom. What struck me the most about the conversation was the extraordinary variety of issues that the mayor has to deal with on a daily basis, and how the breadth of these responsibilities overwhelm typical issues that face corporate CEOs. Yet it’s the latter group—CEOs, captains of industry, prominent VCs—to which people like myself typically look for advice on how to be effective in the workplace, through case-studies and lessons-learned in books, magazine articles, and blogs. Learning from politicians is completely off the businessperson’s radar.

Listening to Mayor Newsom detail how he’s addressing the various issues facing San Francisco—keeping the 49ers in from moving to another city, solving the recent oil-spill crisis, preserving the city’s benefit from tourism, improving the city’s homeless situation, working with both the state and federal government on city problems—makes corporate issues of dealing with stockholders, organizing sales and R&D teams, and increasing market share almost trivial by comparison. This isn’t even considering the fact that the mayor faces public scrutiny of his every move and behavior the likes to which no CEO has even been subjected.

I’ve written quite a bit on this blog about the nature of leadership and the skills necessary to run startups and technology companies. It was clear to me last night that being the mayor of a city like San Francisco is a more complex a job than the role of CEO in most, if not all companies. It was also clear that there is much that can be learned and applied to business from the methods of effective leaders in challenging political roles, such as Gavin Newsom in his current mayoral role.

Time management, e-mail control, collaboration, communication, delegating, employee optimization, meeting customer needs, decision making—these are all topics about improving effectiveness in business that are discussed endlessly in blogs and books targeted to every level of employee. We typically look for people like Jack Welch to teach us how to be more effective managers. The fact is, however, that each of these aspects of the work process are honed to razor-sharp effectiveness by politicians like Mayor Newsom, and we could well be better served by examining the processes that they incorporate into their day-to-day actions.

That’s not to say that business books and magazines like that Harvard Business Review have no value. For sure, some of the organizational approaches of Mayor Newsom overlaps with the current wisdom of corporate America, whether its differentiating between incremental vs radical innovation as described by in The Innovator’s Dilemma or making sure that you have the right people on the bus as advised in Good to Great.

Still, I’d love for someone to shadow Mayor Newsom and relay how he optimizes his day-to-day time management of business practices. This would be information that could be valuable to employees at every level in a corporation and would likely represent best-practices that exceed even the strictest disciplines of corporate CEOs.

Funny how a random meeting at a unplanned stop can have such an impact on one’s thinking.

Bo on Leadership

Bo_fordI posted at the time of Bo Schembechler’s death on Bo’s leadership ability. and demonstrated his Shakespearean-like inspirational ability through a transcript of his hair-raising speech on The Team. I’m sure that anyone who has played for Bo can attest to his extraordinary ability as a leader (any of those want to comment here?), and the audio on my previous post helps to demonstrate that.

A book co-authored by John U. Bacon on the leadership wisdom of Bo has just been released called Bo’s Lasting Lessons. Books on the wisdom of sports legends are usually a dime-a-dozen (as are books on the wisdom of famous CEOs), but if you believe that Bo’s coaching skills and knowledge can provide insight towards leadership in business—a point that I have made in my previous posts—then this book could be a worthwhile book to read.

Just to be clear, I don’t think that a successful sports coach can automatically be successful as a business leader, but I believe that they both share many similar qualities relating to running and inspiring a group of high-level achievers. Executives ignore the lessons from successful leaders at their peril, regardless of the arena in which those leaders performed. (Of course, this book is also a must for any Bo or Michigan fan, and it will probably help ease the pain of the beginning of the current football season and the end of the previous one.)

The following is an excerpt from the book, part of a larger excerpt posted on the Michigan Today website. It’s difficult to read Bo’s thoughts on respecting the institution that one inherits and not think about the mistakes made by Carly Fiorina at HP and other dominant CEOs who misunderstood the institution that they took over, or other CEOs and acquiring companies who ran roughshod over the history and culture of companies that they had acquired. Bo understood that corporate culture begins at the top, and he understood the need to respect the value of the team members that one works with. Echoes of his “the team, the team, the team” benediction resonates throughout this passage:

It’s one thing, when you start in a new position, to throw a bucket of cold water on your people to let them know things are going to be different around here from now on. That’s just smart.

But it’s something completely different to do the same thing to the institution you’re taking over. That’s just stupid!

Let me explain. One of the most common mistakes new leaders make—and I just can’t for the life of me understand this one—is to ignore the history of the organization they just took over, or even to disrespect it. That, to me, is the mark of a weak leader—and one who’s probably not going to last very long.

Let me be as clear as I can be about this: When you become the leader, do not start your reign by dismantling or ignoring the contributions of those who came before. The history of your organization is one of your greatest strengths, and if you’re new to the organization, it’s your job to learn it, to respect it and to teach it to the people coming up in your company.

Sure, it’s easy to appreciate Michigan’s football history—the best, I’d say, in college football. But even if I had gone to Wisconsin, they have a good history, too. Ditto North Carolina. In fact, anywhere I might have gone had to have some history, or it wouldn’t still exist! And that goes for any organization you might join, too…

I made a lot of mistakes, but one thing I got right, after we started having some success, was never once claiming that I alone had put that team together—because I hadn’t. And at no time did I ignore the guys who played here before I arrived, either. It was their tradition, not mine, that I was now in charge of, and I was going to show them I respected what they’d built here. That’s why a lot of those guys are my friends today, great guys like Bob Timberlake and Ron Johnson, who kept Michigan tradition alive before I ever showed up.

Remember this: WHEN YOU ARE THE LEADER, YOU ARE THE ORGANIZATION. You are the company, the school, the team. You are it. Now if you want to act like some kind of jerk where guys who worked for the program and led the program and sacrificed for the program are not welcome to come back—well, you’re not going to have much of a program. And you certainly won’t have a family. But if you respect your history, you’ll get a lot more in return.

When I coached at Ohio State and even at Miami, we had really good facilities. When I got here, I was shocked. Our locker room was on the second floor of Yost Field House. We sat in rusty, folding chairs and hung our clothes on nails hammered into a two-by-four bolted into the wall. Those were our "lockers"!

My coaches started complaining. "What the hell is this?" they said. "We had better stuff at Miami."

I cut that off right away. "No, we didn’t," I said. "See this chair? Fielding Yost sat in this chair. See this nail? Fielding Yost hung his hat on this nail. And you’re telling me we had better stuff at Miami? No, men, we didn’t. We have tradition here, Michigan tradition, and that’s something no one else has!"

And for those who really want to know what it means to respect the history that one inherits:

After we knocked off the unbeatable Buckeyes in 1969, it was my duty to give away the game ball. I had a lot of good choices. There was Garvie Craw, who ran for two touchdowns. There was Barry Pierson, our senior defensive back, who grabbed three interceptions that day, ran back a punt to the Ohio State three-yard line, and turned in one of the single greatest performances I’ve ever seen.

But once everyone quieted down, I asked Bump Elliott [the coach immediately prior to Bo] to come up, and handed the game ball to him. Everyone got choked up, including Bump. Some guys were out and out crying—and I don’t remember when I felt better about anything I’ve done in my entire life.

How many people who experience a CEO change or corporate acquisition are presented with that kind of respect for their company’s history and accumulated culture? And how many would have valued their newfound leadership so much more had they seen the kind of tribute made to the past that Bo made?

Read more about Bo’s Lasting Lessons and buy from Amazon here:

The Team, Part 2

I’ve posted in the past about inspiring speeches, specifically the St. Crispin’s Day speech from Shakepeare’s Henry V. Prominent venture capitalist Brooke Byers once played a video clip of this speech at an entrepreneur conference as an example of what leadership at a startup should be like. It’s always been a favorite speech of mine, and I suggested in my previous post that any entrepreneur or CEO should be able to inspire their employees with a speech of similar sentiment. I’d like to suggest another speech in this post.

King Henry inspired his troops to fight on St. Crispin’s Day, against tremendous odds, with inspiring words of pride and promises of immortality:

For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition;
And gentlemen in England now-a-bed
Shall think themselves accurs’d they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.

Real life is rarely as dramatic and inspiring as theatre, but the speech below by the late Bo Schembechler to the Michigan football team is as inspiring as King Henry’s, if not so eloquent. Rather than emphasizing greatness, honor and historical importance as King Henry does, Bo emphasizes teamship. In 77 seconds, he uses the word “team” 15 times. I suggest that this speech be added to those that any entrepreneur and CEO should be able to give to inspire their employees—it incites a spirit that anyone should want within their company, particularly within a startup.

We want the Big 10 championship, and we’re gonna win it as a team. They can throw out all those great backs and great quarterbacks and great defensive players throughout the country and in this conference. But there’s gonna be one team that’s gonna play solely as a team. No man is more important than the team, no coach is more important than the team. The team, the team, THE TEAM. And if we think that way, all of us, everything that you do you take into consideration, “what effect does it have on my team.” Because you can go into professional football, you can go anywhere you want to play, after you leave here, you will never play for a team again. You’ll play for a contract, you’ll play for this, you’ll play for that, you’ll play for everything except a team. Think what a great thing it is to be a part of something that is “The Team.” We’re gonna win it. We’re gonna win the championship again, because we’re gonna play as a team. Better than anybody else in this conference, we’re gonna play together as a team. We’re gonna believe in each other, we’re not gonna criticize each other, we’re not gonna talk about each other, we’re gonna  encourage each other. And when we play as a team, when the whole season is over, you and I know it’s going to be Michigan again. Michigan.

Audio file of speech here.

Job Opportunities and Corporate Behavior

I’m a little light on my blogging these days. My company recently launched their latest flagship product, so I’m working overtime setting research projects in place for the next generation product line. Innovation takes work, remember? Don’t expect too many posts over the next few weeks.

So, I’ll provide some off-the-cuff comments on an interesting post by Pamela Slim courtesy of Guy Kowasaki. It’s sort of a wake-up call to large companies on responsible behavior. I agree with many aspects of the post—please read the whole thing.

One item that I’ll comment on is when Pamela criticizes companies because

many of your managers act betrayed when their employees tell them they want to leave the company.

I’ve managed some 40+ people and had about half a dozen quite over the past ten years. Some to pursue PhDs, some to start their own companies, some to join a startup. I’ve never been upset about their leaving because I’ve believed that they’re moving on to improve their lives or jobs or interests. Nothing wrong with that. If their current job was a great fit, they would have no reason to leave; if it wasn’t a great fit, good luck with other opportunities and make room for someone who is a better fit.

I’ve heard managers say that they are reluctant to let their employees attend conferences because they are worried that their employees will find other job opportunities there. That’s like a husband never taking their wife out in public because the wife might find someone better. If that’s what you have to do to keep your wife/employee, I feel sorry for the wife/employee because they’ve obviously been treated so poorly that they’ll bolt at the first opportunity. If I were trite, I’d cite Sting right now…

A friend who worked at a competitor once called me to ask if he could try to recruit away an employee of mine. I said go ahead, if you can make their life better than we can, good for you. It didn’t happen.

Pamela makes the point in her post that everyone is replaceable and that no job is secure. Sure, but just because someone is replaceable doesn’t mean that they aren’t valuable. This is a mistake that some companies make, devaluing employees because of replacability. Turnover is costly for companies, and some employees are very difficult to replace—particularly ones with expertise intrinsic to their job or industry. Much has been written about how to retain employees, and those theories go hand-in-hand with employee satisfaction and employee productivity. A happy employee is a productive employee is an employee not going anywhere. I’m tempted to make a crap circle demonstrating this concept, but I’m too tired.

Morals for Management

I just read this post over at The Innovation Insider, Fortune Magazine‘s blog on innovation. It summarizes a Wall Street Journal interview with Time Warner CEO Richard Parsons. They list "5 Tips From Richard Parsons for Managing in Times of Rapid Change."

Tip #2 is

Don’t burn down the house to cash out.

I put this right up there with "Don’t kill," "Don’t steal" and "Don’t lie." I guess I’m surprised that this is one of the top tips for managing by the CEO of Time Warner. Perhaps the Enron attitude detailed in The Smartest Guys in the Room is more pervasive that I previously thought.

Tip #3 is

Don’t treat creative people like they are just cogs in a machine.

This is true, but I think it falls in my more general category of "understand what motivates your employees." If you follow my axiom, then you will find that creative employees have quite different expectations of what they want from work than non-creative employees. Creative employees don’t want to be cogs and they don’t want to just do what they’re told, they want to contribute to the company in new ways in order to get satisfaction with from their job. If they don’t, you risk them leaving for a job where they can be contribute creatively. The worst thing that you can say to a creative employee is to "keep your head down and just do your assigned job." The same holds for every other employee: understand what their motive for being at work is, and figure out how to optimally satisfy their motivation while satisfying the needs of their company.

To be fair to Richard Parsons, the 5 tips from Richard Parsons were probably inferred and extracted from his interview by some WSJ writer/editor without Parsons actually naming the tips himself.