Stay Cool Everybody

As our new hires wrapped up their training, I asked what was the thing they would most remember about their experience after we flew them back to their home markets.

“Everybody in the company is just so cool…” was their biggest take-away.

As a company, you can offer a lot of things to lure talented workers… money, benefits, job perks, starting bonuses, etc. The catch with that is there will always be a company that can offer more of those.

The thing no other company can offer is your culture. When employees know they are working with a purpose, surrounded by other motivated, friendly people who are there to support them, those other things melt away.

Every company has a culture and a subtext to the culture. The subtext lives in the parentheticals, fleshing out the full culture. It looks like this:

Our company culture is based on  Teamwork (but not across teams, only with the few coworkers in your trusted circle), Empowerment (but we do not actually trust you or want you to make decisions), and Integrity (but we have never looked that word up in a dictionary or defined what it means, specifically, to our company–it just sounds like a good, important thing to have).

Lofty words sound nice. As a new employee, I would assume the company I chose to work for believes in things like Honesty, Transparency, and Trust–but just because it is in the Mission Statement does not mean it is in the culture.

Creating a powerful company culture is a modern complexity and many (indeed, most) companies struggle with it, but it is super simple. Culture starts at the top, with the examples set by the company leaders.

Leaders lead.

If they live the culture they want others to follow, what fills the parentheses will take care of itself. In other words, a duplicitous leader creates a duplicitous culture. Leaders who show Teamwork, grant Empowerment and Trust before those things are begged for, define Integrity and demonstrate it, are Transparent about the what and why of decisions, and hold Honesty as high a value as proper hygiene… well, those leaders have employees who leave the corporate office saying, “Everybody in the company is just so cool!”

Be calm and stay cool, leaders.

 

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Lead With A Light Touch

There is a pervasive fear among inexperienced leaders: “I can’t trust my people.”

They never say it that way, of course. They may not even realize they feel that way. It comes out in more innocuous ways. It is the leader who is a borderline micro-manager (because people need direction), the person that resists delegating a task (because it has to be done “right”), or the time-watcher who judges their team’s commitment by what time each member’s day starts and finishes (rather than by the results they produced).

In other words, these people are heavy-handed leaders. They believe they have to be involved in everything, every step of the way. They worry if anyone else takes the wheel, that person will promptly drive the bus off a cliff.

I prefer to lead using cruise-control, adjusting course with a light touch, as needed. I grant my team a lot of authority and let them do things their way. In fact, one of the trade-offs of being a leader is you no longer get to decide what the “right way” to do something is. You give up having the only answers and trust people to reach the same results you would, but in their own way. In other words, I might show a team member how I perform a task but I do not expect them to do it the same way I showed them now and forever. I expect them to do it whatever way works best for them.

The way I see it, my job as a leader, has three primary functions:

1.  Teach my team to think for themselves and create their own ways of getting work done. Essentially, as long as we are doing nothing that is immoral, unethical, or illegal, we are on the right track.

2.  Stay out of their way. I provide their assignments and some direction. I am here for questions. Outside of that and asking for a regular update if I am not hearing from them (in case I have to update anyone), I trust them to do their work.

3.  Remove obstacles. The time when it is appropriate to step in as a leader is when your team hits a roadblock. Then, you jump in and clear that roadblock–whether it is to provide tools or  political cover or simply moral support–and then get back out-of-the-way.

 

Leading with a light touch helps your team rely on themselves, trust their decisions, and grow both personally and professionally. It helps you grow, too. When you learn to clear roadblocks instead of being a roadblock, you become an effective and trusted leader. You set the example for others and you end up determining the course of the whole organization, almost invisibly.

It is simple when you think about it. Just be someone you would want to work for.

Go. Lead.

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How To Succeed Despite Your Best Efforts

 

Nicole and I are both successful professionals but we each took a different path to arrive here. Nicole is a true professional any way you can define it. Her resume is polished. Her career path is clear and sensible. She has done a remarkable job managing her career and it has paid off.

Reading Nicole’s resume is like watching a Pixar movie. You can clearly see the formula to success and every plot point along the way is clear. One job leads fluidly to another with increasing levels of responsibility. She has two degrees, has done volunteer work in her field, has sought successful mentors and top-notch references, and has plenty of credentialed post education awards and certificates.

In short, she did everything right and is enjoying the fruits of her efforts.

I have found success, too, but I have done everything wrong. Reading my resume is like watching a Quentin Tarantino movie. It seems haphazard, the timeline is broken, and nothing makes sense until the end.

Both paths are fine and if you are driven, both paths will take you where you want to go despite the warnings of conventional wisdom. Nicole’s path is more reliable. It is the more intelligent way to go, in my opinion, but it was not for me.

I dropped out of college. I left high paying positions for lower paying ones to follow passion. I went into business for myself (and failed, twice). I tried to be an artist. I tried to be a customs broker. I tried to be a professional movie critic and an IT Security Administrator. I have been a public speaker, a sales manager, a pizza delivery driver, a telemarketer, a small business consultant, and (a LOT) more. I have been fired, demoted, and denied positions. I have gaps in my employment history, I have been in trouble with the law, and I have burned bridges with former employers.

The fact is, I have succeeded in spite of my best efforts, not because of them. The success I have found has mostly come from the wisdom of many, many failures.

Nonetheless, I would not begrudge anyone for doing things the hard way, like me. In fact, I would argue the wisdom I gained from being young and stupid has become invaluable to me as I mature into mid-life.

So, how do you succeed despite what seems like your best efforts to undermine your success?

Here is what I did…

To become an author, I did not pursue a degree in writing. I started a blog and read books about writing… and then I wrote. Terribly at first, but I kept going until I became better.

To become a leader, I did not go to school to learn about leadership or organizational development. Instead, I had bosses who recommended great books. Then I learned from both the books and the bosses until I gained enough knowledge and wisdom to try my own ideas. Then I applied myself. Terribly at first, but I kept going until I became better. I continue to read, learn, apply, and create.

To become someone with vision and a penchant for thinking outside of convention, I did not get a degree in Sociology or Information Technology. Instead, I read a lot of books by people who proposed ideas that seemed absurd to me (until I read them) and then I challenged everything I thought was true. I still do this and I am still amazed at how different the world is today from what I thought it was yesterday, every day.

I do not have a “natural talent” for anything. I was not born with a special gift. I do not have quick-response muscles like some people. I was never the smartest kid in class (until I left school). I don’t fight crime because my parents were murdered–I don’t have any special drive to be famous, or rich, or altruistic. The only thing that might make me exceptional is maybe being good at being persistent and resilient.

You can take whatever path to success you want, but if you want to succeed despite your best efforts to undermine a traditional path to success, then you have to be willing to do three things:

Get up every morning. Do what you did yesterday a little better today.  Keep going.

Maybe, one more thing… don’t get so caught up following the trail that you forget to stray away from it once in a while. There is a lot of cool stuff off the beaten path.

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Don’t Pay For Performance

I use a radical hiring ideology: pay the most we feel a position is worth.

In other words, when I look at an open position, the question I ask is not, “What is the cheapest we can get someone for?” It is not, “What is the competition paying?”. The question I ask is, “If we found the perfect person for this position, someone who will knock it out of the park and make our team even better… what would I be willing to pay that person if she was the world’s best negotiator? What is the price she would command?”

That’s where I start. Then I do a deep-dive compensation analysis of the market, the cost of living, unemployment rate in the area, etc. and adjust according to what we can afford.

This flies in the face of nearly every employer I have ever worked for… and it has been an incredibly successful approach.

There is a fundamental breakdown in the way employers approach hiring. Most companies have an entrepreneurial philosophy–start with a lower wage and reward performance as people help the company grow.

It makes sense on its face, especially in Sales. If you drive the business and bust hump, you will reap the benefits of “unlimited earning potential!”. Except there is no such thing. You might as well offer free unicorn rides to your potential hires… and they know that is what you are offering.

Performance-based pay generally breaks down in at least two ways…

1.  Potential hires know if it sounds too good to be true, then it probably is. If I could simply out-work my fellow team members to enjoy the laurels of success, then I would already be a multi-millionaire, and so would most of my friends. The fact is performance based pay is presented as a carrot when it is actually a stick. The target to success is a moving one (sales quotas always go up, never down), politics become involved, and, quite honestly, most employees do not understand how the financials of a company work–they just know the company made X millions of dollars last year and they made X thousands.

2.  When you start with a lower base-pay, you lower the quality of people in the running. This is the big one that most employers miss. You might have a starting pay of $8 per hour but you know that a decent employee will end up making $23 per hour if they are good at their job and earn bonuses. The problem is, the person you hired applied for an $8 per hour job. They didn’t do the math. They don’t know how your bonus structure works or what obstacles might be placed in their way. You are hiring the type of person who applies for an $8 per hour job. Why not hire the type of person who applies for a $23 per hour job from the start?

 

I get it. Most companies were started by, or are run by, entrepreneurs at heart. They are the rare few people who find a way to succeed no matter what. They see the world in a unique way and leverage their vision and nearly limitless drive to make things happen. Their folly is they assume the rest of the world is just like them. They assume that a meritocratic salary structure that rewards performance will automatically weed out the weak and reward the best in their best people.

Sometimes it works. There is always a diamond in the rough waiting to be found and developed. Here is another approach to consider, though:

Find the people who are already top performers and hire them. The guy that is already earning $23 per hour is not looking at jobs advertised at $8 per hour “with unlimited earning potential!”. He is looking at $30 per hour jobs. He has already put in his time to prove his value. He is already successful and motivated–that’s how he got to where he is. With rare exception, he is not looking to start at the bottom again.

If your hope is to find a total rock star employee, then start at the top–where they live, not the bottom.

Or better… don’t. I like not having to compete for the best people.

 

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Principles Instead of Goals

One of my goals this year is to do away with goals.

I have been wondering about the effectiveness of goal-setting for some time and it is hard for me to accept that setting goals is not worthwhile. Yet… in a world of constant fluctuation, I find goals to be merely placeholders instead of targets.

When you set a goal, one of two things happens. You achieve it or you don’t. If you don’t, typically, you just move the goal. Many people set a goal of “lose weight” at the beginning of the year, for example. Many people do not achieve their goal or, if they do, they quickly slide back. For those that do not reach the goal, they move the goal. “I’ll try again next year,” or, “I’ll just try to lose 10 pounds by March instead of 20.”

The same thing applies to business goals. Sales teams try to hit their target–sometimes they do. Sometimes they don’t. If they do, the target gets set higher–it moves. If they don’t, the date to reach the target is adjusted–the goal still moves.

The point of a goal is to inspire people to do better but I think there is a better way to do that. Rather than living for goals, live by principles.

Principles work differently. If I live by the principles of eating healthy and staying active, then I probably will never have to worry about reaching a weight goal. If my organization lives by the principle of “deliver amazing service for a fair price” then the sales will take care of themselves.

Wherever I see a goal now, I am going to look at the underlying principle that is supposed to be driving it and examine why the principle is not being lived up to rather than why the goal is not being met.

I think if we identify the correct principles, we will never have to waste our time or energy on chasing goals and targets.

Goals are a finish line at the end of a race. Principles are what make you want to run in the first place.

Principles over Goals.

 

 

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Light Hearted Leadership

I attended Seth Godin’s Leadership Workshop a couple weeks ago and “Rule 6” has been sticking with me. “Don’t forget Rule 6,” Seth admonished us attendees. Rule 6 is “Never take yourself too seriously.”

As an adolescent, I worked at my uncle’s restaurant, washing dishes. One day, I opened the faucet and the handle snapped, creating an instant water fountain in the kitchen. The cooks scrambled to save food. The bus boys scrambled to cover surfaces and keep things dry. The waitresses fled to keep their hair from getting wet. And the water kept gushing toward the ceiling. I was the only who didn’t move. I froze, panicked. I knew my uncle was going to kill me, I just knew it.

What I did not know, though, was my uncle had learned Rule 6. While I stared in awe and terror at the water-spout, my uncle grabbed a towel and forced the water down. “Mikey!” he said, snapping me to attention. I thought I was about to get fired… and then terminated. When I glanced up, though, my uncle looked like a dog who went swimming for the first time. He was soaking wet, hair in his face, and water dripping off every corner of his body but he had the biggest smile I had ever seen. Unbelievably, he started laughing. He said, “Guess we didn’t see that coming, huh?” I had no idea how much food we lost or what the clean-up was going to cost us but I knew it was a big hit financially that day, and it was somehow my fault, and my uncle was going to have to pay for it all and was about to fire me, and he was laughing?

“Hold this while I grab a wrench,” my uncle said, putting my hand on the towel holding back the water-spout. Seeing him laugh also eased the tension with everyone else in the kitchen. Within minutes, the cooks and bus boys were singing songs while they frantically cleaned up and sent orders out. Everyone was laughing and making jokes about what just happened.

After the water was mopped up and everything was put back together, I knew the yelling would come but it never did. I learned, over time, that my uncle had a light heart about the worst disasters. It was not that he did not respond or take appropriate action when bad things happened. It was that he did it while appreciating the absurdity of the unexpected. He knew things do not always go the way we want and when bad things happen, there was no point in reacting badly and making them worse.

Today, I lead with a light heart, too, and I appreciate Rule 6.

Problems are serious. Situations are serious. Strategy is serious. Emergencies are serious. But you don’t have to be. When problems arise, you do not have to be the type of person everyone expects to die from a stress-induced heart attack or brain aneurysm brought on by yelling so angrily you burst a blood vessel in your forehead.

Try being someone who understands life is not always perfect and knows the unexpected is the fun part. It’s okay to smile when bad things happen. It does not mean you do not recognize things have gone badly. It means you are committing to not making them worse. What good will lending a bad reaction to a bad situation do?

Life would be boring without the challenges, anyway.

Leading with a light heart during tough times endears your team to follow you and rise up, keeping light hearts as well (of course, some people will feel angry that you are not being “serious enough” for them–but that is their problem, isn’t it?). Think about it. If there was a disaster, which team would you want to be on?

The one singing and smiling while they continue to serve customers and get the job done, or… well… the other one?

You can choose to smile.

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Theory of Business Complexity

The father of computer science and artificial intelligence, Alan Turing, created a theory of computation which describes the limitations and capabilities of any computers we can imagine.

Turing’s theory, dumbed down to a basic of rule of thumb, tells us computing power is limited by only three things. These three things are also, I think, the limitations of human ability.

Consider that humans are essentially extraordinary computers. What we call “computers”, after all, are merely tools we have made to replicate facets of human behavior. Therefore, Turing’s limitations of computers applies to human brain power as well.

As a leader in your organization (or just as a leader in your life), these are the same three limitations you face against any complex problem. Here they are:

1.  Size. An easy way to think about this is to compare us to, let’s say, chickens. Why can’t chickens solve problems like transportation, communication, and space travel? Well, one obvious reason is they simply do not have the brain capacity. They are simply maxed out on storage space and memory. If their brains were big enough, though, they would have the capacity to know anything.

As humans, we have an abundance of capacity. Our brains are big enough to understand the mathematics of the universe and still leave room for remembering where our car keys are (most of the time).

Is the size of your team or organization large enough to handle the problem(s) you are facing? Do you have far more capacity than you can use?

2.  Speed. Chickens simply can not compute as fast as humans. If they could, they would be able to outsmart us (assuming they had enough capacity for planning), and perhaps even overthrow us as kings of the Animal Kingdom.

The reason a computer can outsmart a person when playing chess, is not a size issue. The human has the storage space in her head to know all possible moves and think through them accordingly. The obstacle is speed. A computer can calculate those possible moves in a fraction of the time a human can. Given enough time, a human can (and does) beat a computer at chess.

Does your team have the resources needed to move fast? How much of your return on investment goes back into improving training and providing better tools? Are you allowing your team the flexibility, trust, and authority to make decisions quickly, without you as the middle man? How can you go faster?

3.  Society. Actually, the word I want to use here is “culture”, but “society” keeps the alliteration with the “s” sounds. Nonetheless, think about the society chickens surround each other in. It is not a social norm or cultural expectation for them to develop their brains or think about complex problems. Chickens did not create fire or invent the wheel because chickens have not evolved a culture of learning, of problem solving, tinkering, or exercising creativity.

What is the society or culture of your company or team? Do you have a culture that embraces creativity or stifles it? (If you are stifling it, then you are probably doing so by limiting the Size or Speed of your team.) Do you have a culture of problem-solving, tinkering, and trying new ideas?

 

Turing came up with his theory of computational scalability in the 1930’s. The concept remains useful and relevant close to a hundred years later and in areas he probably never thought about it.

When facing what seems to be an insurmountable problem, take a step back from the issue itself and look at the three things that are actually limiting you from solving it: Size, Speed, and Society. If you focus on the underlying problems of capacity, timeliness, and culture (size, speed, and society), then you just might be able to solve any problem you come across.

I’d like to share more about this but my tablet’s battery is running low, I’ve got to hurry to another appointment, and my pets are looking at me like I spend too much time writing.

Size, Speed, Society.

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Invest In Something Worthwhile

If you are chasing a career, passion, or hobby, the best way to succeed is to spend your money and time improving your skills.

The folly of many professionals is they do not understand this simple fact. They think training is something the company handles because it is in the company’s best interest, not something the employee should handle because it is in his or her own best interest.

Over the weekend I attended a Leadership course hosted by Seth Godin. The company I work for did not pay for it. I didn’t ask or tell anybody I was doing it. I ponied up for it on my time with my money because I am passionate about leadership and I want to further my skills.

I buy and read books about writing and marketing for the same reason.

There are lots of places and ways to invest your time and money: television shows, video games, car accessories, drinks with friends, etc. The thing is, all of those things do not give anything back to help develop you. There is nothing wrong with investing in those things but recognize most of the time they will not provide a good return on your investment.

The best investment you can make is in yourself. If you want a better future, invest in yourself now.

 

 

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Finish Last, Not First

 

Last week I wrote about the importance of starting first. Many people fail simply because they fail to start.

Another way to fail is to finish before the race is over. You know the story already… a product that was ahead of its time and faded away just before the market exploded (think Odeo before podcasts really took off, or Chrysler’s first electric car before Tesla and Toyota timed it right).

In business, the first one to the finish line is not necessarily the best. The one who takes time to hone their product or craft and takes the long route to ensure what they deliver is the absolute best wins time and time again.

While companies like Blackberry, Microsoft, and Palm were rushing to put more and more junk phones on the market, Apple took the time to re-envision what a portable phone could be and when they hit the market, they revolutionized it. The same is true of Netflix (CD’s and DVD’s by mail order already existed but Netflix took the time to get it right). The same is true of Amazon (there were lots of companies with online stores but Amazon took the time to build a faster shipping platform and better return process). The same is true of Starbucks (there were lots of ways to get good coffee but Starbucks took the time to perfect the experience of buying it).

If you want to go from forgettable to remarkable… start first, not last and finish last, not first.

 

 

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Start First, Not Last

I announced that Nicole and I are starting a new blog together, A Couple Vegans. We don’t know how, exactly, it is going to work. Do we take turns writing articles? Do we write them all together? Who is responsible for the website maintenance? Who is going to take on getting a logo created? Do we want a logo and brand? What is our long-term goal with the blog? The list goes on…

Many times we fail because we have the notion we can not start until everything is perfectly in place, until we know the end result and every step along the way. That is definitely a viable option for a select few but most of us (and I mean nearly all of us) will never move past the starting line if we wait until the plan is perfected.

“Start” can not be the last step of the plan. If we wait until everyone else finishes before we start, there is no point to trying.

Strong leaders have vision. They know (roughly) where they want to end up. They have a few ideas of how to set things in motion to get there. Then, they start. They do not plan for every eventuality or hiccup along the way. They plan for as much as they can, practically, and wait only as long as they have to. Once the essentials are in place, though, they go.

A Couple Vegans will evolve as we figure out what we want from it and how we intend to reach that goal, but the important thing is, the website is alive, now. It is real and in the world. We started first. We will figure out a lot of it as we go.

Put another away, the first step to success is Commitment. The second step is Execution. The final step is Repeat.

Start first, not last.

 

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