Pardon the Manterruption

Interrupting is just…plain…rude.

A couple of weeks ago at the SXSW conference, an interesting thing happened.


Google Chairman Eric Schmidt and Aspen Institute CEO (and author) Walt Isaacson were called out for repeatedly interrupting Megan Smith, the U.S. government’s Chief Technology Officer.

The real stinger for Schmidt is that the person who did the calling out was none other than Google’s own Judith Williams, head of global diversity and talent programs and by some accounts head of Google’s “Unconscious Bias Program.”

From the article:

“The incident was a classic example of what Jessica Bennett, writing in Time magazine earlier this year, has dubbed ‘manterrupting’, or the ‘unnecessary interruption of a woman by a man’.”

While I doubt the real usefulness of the word “manterrupting” beyond being an interesting mashup–“interrupting” suffices nicely for all genders–I do think that there is a real lesson here in watching out for known biases.

Not to mention the lesson of watching out for simply rude behavior.  This is especially true for “smart” people or people who believe their position of power affords them the right to interrupt.

Most interruptors (like me at times) might say they do so out of excitement or passion or a “strong personality.”  (By the way, anyone who uses the term “strong personality” without their tongue firmly in cheek is probably somebody watch out for).

The truth is, it’s just rude and impatient.  And, it’s often just a blind spot for those of us who have or do suffer from the urge to interrupt.

The extent of such a blind spot can be shocking. For instance, after a frustrating set of interruptions, I once tested the mettle of a particularly egregious senior executive interruptor to see how far the arrogance of the interruption would extend.

While speaking, I grew to know the interruption was coming, so I chose–once–to just keep talking through it.

I made it about twice the length of this sentence while this person just kept talking before I, finally, relented. It seems that my upbringing wouldn’t allow me to sustain talking over someone for that long–even from the proverbial high ground.

Imagine a full 10 seconds of two grown people talking over one another, and you’ll get a sense of the ridiculousness of the situation. I’m sure the others in the room saw it.

Though I never tested it again, the person’s ability to interrupt and continue interrupting when room wasn’t ceded was a striking exercise of arrogance and impatience.

Don’t be that person!

On this Saturday morning, consider the need to let others speak.

Especially watch out for cultural or gender differences in assertiveness.

As I’ve posted previously (link here), this sensitivity can make your team better, not to mention make you (and me) a better person to work with.

To all those I’ve interrupted:  I’m sorry. I was rude.

Pardon the manterruption.

How Shared Vision Prevents Small Thinking

When we’re not able to see that we are part of something bigger…We become part of something smaller.

Recently, I read the book Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End by Dr. Atul Gawande. Gawande is a surgeon and author.  The book is an excellent read about how individuals, cultures, and the medical profession deal with the concept of mortality.

In a decidedly challenging but altogether interesting narrative, Gawande surfaces an interesting concept that is directly useful to those of us thinking about strategy, talent, culture, and inspiration.

Namely, in one part of the book, Gawande outlines research by Laura Carstensen at Stanford University on how mindsets related to aging cause us to close off our horizons.

It seems that as young people with boundless time ahead of us, we (that’s you, me, and every other person in the world) think expansively, we seek new things, and we value unfamiliar experiences.  We “plug into bigger streams of knowledge.”

The world is our oyster.

Interestingly, as we age, and as we come to terms with the waning amount of time we have in the world, we become much more interested in spending time with people we know and love, focusing on what is tangible and immediate, and enjoying the things we are familiar with.

As you age, “your focus shifts to the here and now.”

Carstensen did multiple studies to test this hypothesis.  The survey based research on this topic shows that young people generally value adventure…expansive vision and activities. Older people generally value a smaller view of the world…their circle and its inhabitants.

But there is one shocking revelation about this that the book provides…

The closing off of horizons isn’t about age.

It’s about perspective.

For instance, among the ill, the age differences in mindset disappear. Young people who are terminally ill think “like old people”–small horizons, immediacy, and intimacy are important.

On the other side, when posed with hypothetical questions of how they would spend their life if a medical breakthrough extended it for another 20 years, old people think like young people–expansively and in terms of adventure.

Similarly, young people faced with major crises or uncertainty start to think “like old people.”  A great example is given from the research, which happened to bracket some very uncertain times for its subjects. To wit (and this is from Gawande’s book with my emphasis added):

“…A year after the [survey team] had completed its Hong Kong study, the news came out that political control of the country would be handed over to China.  People developed tremendous anxiety about what would happen to them and their families under Chinese rule.  The researchers recognized an opportunity and repeated the survey…Sure enough, they found that people had narrowed their social networks to the point that the differences in the goals of young and old vanished.  A year after the handover, when the uncertainty had subsided, the team did the survey again.  The age differences reappeared.

“They did the study yet again after the 9/11 attacks in the United States, and during the SARS epidemic that spread through Hong Kong in the Spring of 2003 killing 300 people in a matter of weeks. In each case, the results were consistent.  When, as the researchers put it, life’s fragility is primed, people’s goals and motives shift completely.

It’s perspective, not age that matters.”

People with a view of being part of bigger things–a longer future, for instance–think bigger, more creatively, and more adventurously.

People with no view of bigger things think smaller.

How this applies to you…

This insight is not about aging… It’s about how our minds deal with vision, purpose, and inspiration.

For instance, there are people in your organization right now who have no view of a bigger, longer term purpose for themselves in the organization.

It might be just a few…

…It might be every. single. one. of. them.

The research cited above says something very simple:  When people believe they are part of something bigger…that they have a future–No, strike that, even that they believe they could have a future that is long and interesting–they think more expansively and creatively.

When they don’t?

They worry about themselves.

Their world becomes smaller, intimate, and guarded.

So what?

You want to cultivate an organization that is creative, expansive, and vibrant?

Try helping people understand their future within it.  Be explicit about the long term, about how people are cared about; and about the prospects for the future for them and for the organization.

You want to cultivate an organizational culture that is insular, turf driven, selfish, dull, and dogmatic?

Try focusing people on the short term.  Ensure that word gets around that nobody is safe. Manufacture crisis and ambiguity. Conduct layoffs right along with your annual budgeting cycle. Fire people for taking risks. Create uncertainty and fear. Propagate a vision of the future that is inscrutable for the rank and file or simply insensitive to their goals.

The research cited above says that you and I think “old” when we undergo times of strife, uncertainty, and major change.

In short, we think “old” when we have no positive or stable vision for what the future holds.

Insularity, selfishness, and small mindedness are the insidious outcomes of a lack of vision.

So, when we’re not able to see that we are part of something bigger, we become part of something smaller…Namely ourselves and our own immediate circle.

A healthy vision of the future and what’s in it for the people in the organization just might be the key to keeping your organization forever young.

I’d be interested in your comments.

Don’t Waste Your Life: Overcome The Endowment Effect

Never, ever let your current situation adversely define your future situation.

Here’s a quick hit in the spirit of Saturday and “Coffee and a Do Not.”

How often do you “stick” where you are not because it’s the best place, but because it’s “your” place?

You keep a crappy job, or a good job within a crappy culture.

You keep a car that constantly breaks down.

You own stocks that have been perennial losers.

Perhaps you are business owner that keeps holding onto an underperforming management team, or a set of underperforming businesses.

In really nasty situations, you stay close to bullies, abusers, cheats, and other ugly people because they are the ones you’ve grown up with.

It happens to all of us.

The explanation

In social psychology is a cognitive bias known as The Endowment Effect.   In short and simple words, this effect means that, as humans, we have a tendency to value things we currently own more than we would value them if they were somebody else’s.

A bird in the hand is worth more than a bird in the bush.  But worse, even when faced with a better bird right in front of us we keep the bird in the hand.

That car you have that constantly breaks down?  You’d never buy it from someone else, because better ones are on the market right now.

That crappy job you’ve stayed in for years?  You’d never take it again if you knew what you know now because, again, better ones are on the market right now.

That loyalty you feel to that clearly unethical leader?  You’d criticize anyone else who did that because you know better.

But, these are yours, and so you ascribe higher value to them–in many cases defending them irrationally–than you otherwise would.

The impact

The result of the endowment effect isn’t all bad.  It allows us to have some comfort in difficult times.  How many times have you heard people justify their current awful situation as a “blessing” when pretty much anyone else would say it was a curse?  That is, at least partly, the endowment effect in action.  Loyalty has some roots in this effect, and loyalty can be good…to a degree.

But, on the downside, the endowment effect has a highly insidious effect on your career, finances, relationships, etc.

It causes you to let your current situation define more of your future situation than it should. 

That’s right, you “stick” in bad situations, investments, relationships, and jobs longer than a “smart” person would, because your brain is wired to make it so.

Why else do people look back on years working for a particular leader and say “what was I thinking?”

The truth is, they weren’t thinking.  They valued where they were, irrationally so.

How to guard against it

I’m not one who believes that absolute objectivity is either possible or really a good thing.  We have emotional and irrational ties to everything; and in general they help us to function.


Because this particular bias can cause you to waste valuable years of your career (or, even valuable time repairing a crappy car), you and I need to watch out for its effects.

The best way to guard against the endowment effect is to think.   Yeah, that’s right, just think.   Stop for a minute and ask yourself if you are valuing the abuse you take, or the ethical stretches you have been ordered to execute, more than a sane person on the outside would.

Stop for a minute and ask yourself whether you’d be better off making a trade.  That works whether we are talking investments, jobs, subordinates, superiors, or that priceless artwork you own.

You guard against the endowment effect by considering a trade.

A parting, and partly personal anecdote

One of the very interesting people I had the opportunity to work with and then know for years was the famous “genius” of American football, Bill Walsh.

Bill was famously effective as a general manager in the NFL–that is, he was great at making personnel decisions.  In fact, he made a lot of very high profile athletes very angry by trading them to other teams while they were still “good” players. Bill wanted to trade players a year before their production fell off.  This facet of Bill Walsh’s approach was chronicled nicely in the recent NFL Network documentary Bill Walsh a Football Life.

A famous aspect of Bill’s objectivity was that he asked his staff what they thought Joe Montana’s trade value was…during Joe Montana’s prime.  Joe Montana, for those who do no know, was and is one of the greatest quarterbacks in the history of the NFL.  Bill was willing to test the market for his quarterback–the lynchpin of his offensive gameplan–while his quarterback was still building a hall of fame resume.

Bill didn’t suffer from the endowment effect, at least in his player personnel decisions.

I guess I should call it a privilege to be a guy who was recruited by, hired by, and cut by Bill.  You knew where you stood.

As brutal as that seems, and I’ll write on the brutality of NFL talent management at some point in the future, sometimes we need to adopt a little bit of that mindset to protect ourselves.

Where does the endowment effect show itself in your life and experience?  Please share…

The Power of Price in Healthcare and Life

Price is the ultimate signal, unless you are in healthcare!

I came across this article on a study that evaluated the price of common blood tests.


The article explains that, in the study, a common lipid panel blood test was priced anywhere from $10 to $10,000.

A quote:

“For this research, published in August in the British Medical Journal, Hsia and her colleagues compiled reams of data about how much more than 100 hospitals charged for basic blood work. The prices these facilities charged consumers were all over the map.

The charge for a lipid panel ranged from $10 to $10,169. Hospital prices for a basic metabolic panel (which doctors use to measure the body’s metabolism) were $35 at one facility — and $7,303 at another.”

Now, it doesn’t take a study of this sort to help us know that there are microeconomic issues in the U.S. healthcare system.

What it does do is illuminate an important point:  Price information is critical.  Price is the signal by which we navigate the world.  When prices (or visibility of prices) get messed up, behavior gets…odd.

In the case of U.S. healthcare, the combination of multiple service entities, billing obscurities, and the disconnect between payors, providers, and consumers brings you pricing disparities of the sort the article outlines.

When was the last time you checked the price of medical service before you consumed it?   It’s one of the few services we utilize with impunity but without knowing the cost beforehand.

Can you imagine driving a car off the lot without knowing the price (even if you have to haggle)?  A car can run about the same transaction size as many medical procedures, yet we wait for the bill.

Interesting, no?

When Hard Choices are Easy

Sometimes, things we call “hard choices” are easy…If you look at them the right way.

So much is made about hard choices.

I’ve had it posed to me by a few people as I made the decision–with the encouragement of a couple of close colleagues–to set off on new adventures over the past year:

“Wow, that must have been a really hard choice to make.”


Well, okay, it came with some anguish because I had fallen in love with the people and mission of the organization that I worked within and had at least partly helped to build and lead…

…but it wasn’t a really hard choice.

The truth is, the segment of society that I live within only faces really hard choices intermittently.

Sometimes, easy choices are lauded too much.

Within the past week or so, a couple of good examples come up.

Example 1:  When moral choices are viewed as “hard.”

Last week, David Boren, former U.S. Senator and current President of the University of Oklahoma, made a decision to shutter the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity chapter at the university and to expel a couple of its members after an almost unbelievable display of racist ignorance was caught on tape and revealed.  Students were filmed chanting a little ditty that invoked not only racist exclusion, but also imagery of lynching.

It was as disgusting as it was unbelievable, and I write this as a middle-aged guy who grew up in the deep south of the U.S.

Boren acted quickly, and correctly.

Reactions were interesting on this one.  People have been impressed with how quickly Boren acted.  Here’s one example (and I emphasize, example… no endorsement or disparagement implied):

Now, this tweet is an honest expression that arises no doubt out of many kinds of frustration with prior examples of foot dragging in the face of such decisions. However, look at the words:  Awe, moral, steadfast.   Wow. David Boren had the easiest moral decision to make.  He threw a couple of ignoramuses who just might be racists off the campus of a university, and he shuttered a student organization that had clearly propagated the chant and the mindset to deliver it with impunity. We are in awe at the morality of his decision because it’s unusual, but shouldn’t confuse that with hard. 

Example 2:  When personal resource tradeoffs are viewed as “hard.” 

Also last week, Google’s CFO, Patrick Pichette, announced his resignation with a candid and interesting memo.  The gist?  It’s time to spend time with family. I get that. I also applaud the tone of the memo. But, it has been, once again, interesting to see some of the reactions to the announcement.

The language:  Honest, refreshing, and heartwarming.

Let’s be clear, the choice to leave a high profile leadership position at one of the world’s “great” companies to spend time with one’s family may be a tough one for a given individual.  But, what we are seeing is simply a guy making a different choice in life.

He has made a fortune as an executive, has watched his kids leave the house, and has had an epiphany that he just might need to allocate his resources (read that: time) differently before it’s too late.


Perhaps, unusually.

But this isn’t a “hard choice.”

We hold up people making “unusual” choices as if they are heroes, and confuse “unusual” with “hard.”

Perhaps these are roads less traveled, but they aren’t “hard” choices in the traditional sense of the word.

What hard choices really are

Hard choices are more like:

– Do I make payroll or pay the bank?

– Should I send my last $20 to the power company or the water company?

– Do I quit my job to take care of my sick relative?

– Do I leave this abusive marriage?

– Do I blow the whistle on corporate or executive malfeasance, or just leave?

– Do I really need to go to the doctor to get this back pain and cough figured out?

– Should I opt for treatment, or for quality of life?

Those are hard choices.

See what I did there? Hard choices are about choosing between two different forms of pain.  There is no clear outcome.  Hard choices come where there isn’t enough to go around, or there isn’t a clear moral, ethical, or [insert standard of judgment here] win.

Choosing between two different forms of pleasure or choosing to do the patently right thing may sometimes be difficult, but it’s not a “hard” or “moral” choice as the implications tend to get noted.

Let’s not confuse the notion of opportunity cost with the notion of making really hard choices.

I write this because I have personally failed in making this distinction too many times.

How this applies to the world of business leadership and this blog…

Somebody reading this is facing a dilemma, and they are posing it as a “hard” choice to themselves.  It might be the dilemma of leaving a toxic culture or relationship, or taking a personal risk to make a big strategic move on behalf of the themselves or a company.

I encourage that person to reflect on the choice in, perhaps, a different way:  Is the choice hard because there is no morally or painfully clear outcome, or is it hard because doing the morally clear thing is simply difficult?  What happens if you don’t make the choice?

It’s important that we avoid confusing clear but painful decisions with truly ambiguous “hard” choices.

This matters in business, and it matters in life.

Coffee and a Do Not: Delegating Vision

 The one leadership aspect that you cannot delegate is all too often the one that under-apprenticed leaders want to give away first.  

You see this situation play out all the time…

A person with good management skills flies up the corporate ladder because he can execute.

He can control, direct, and manage details with impunity; and that is a terribly valuable thing early in one’s career.

And then…he gets to a point and a position that requires him to do something very different.  He has to go from being “the guy” to being the guy behind the guy.  He goes from solving the problem to ensuring that the problem gets solved.

Through span of control, volume of work, or simply the sheer complexity the high performing manager has to make the leap to being an executive.  He has to be a leader.

And, wow, what a leap it is.

Why the leap from management to leadership is hard

The complication of the leap is that high performing managers, unlike executives, have the privilege of operating without having to have vision. Vision is provided to them in the form of budget directives, strategic plans, and senior management dialogues.

When our friendly manager makes the leap, he has to figure out how to “do” vision.

But, an odd thing happens to high performing managers promoted too fast…

…They suddenly realize that since vision is coming from no one else above them in the organization, they start to look for it from below them in the organization.

After all…it has to come from somewhere, right?

They feel the need to find things to manage, like budgets, or headcount, minute deal details, or–too often–how their subordinates do their jobs.  They are good at doing those things.

They ignore the need to provide vision because, well, they’ve never had to…and success has come on the merits of a strong management approach.

Thus, they “delegate vision” into the organization.

They say to their subordinates (sometimes explicitly, even!): “I don’t know where we are going. You show me and then I’ll know; but until then, here are some details I’ll dig into.”

The outcomes for our under-apprenticed “leader”

Three outcomes are possible for our manager. Two are good for the organization and one is bad…very bad…

First, if he is a good learner (which typically means good listener) and is able to absorb clues, training, and mentorship about what it is that leaders do vs. what managers do, he makes the leap.  He crafts his own vision. He learns to deliver that vision and to get out of the way.  This is a good outcome.

Second, if he isn’t a good learner but the organization is well governed, he “peters” out.  The Peter principle catches up to him. He has risen to the level of his incompetence, and in well-governed companies his sniff at an executive position is ended quickly, humanely, and soundly.  He returns to a solid management position.  This, likewise, is a good outcome.

Third, if the organization isn’t good at evaluating executive talent and/or acting on evaluations, he–shockingly–sticks.  In poorly governed companies–typically those centered on personality cults and favoritism or those with absentee hierarchies–high performing managers can populate executive positions (albeit ineffectively) for long periods of time.

The third scenario is a bad one:  The brutally bad reality of the manager sticking in such a position is that because he doesn’t know what it means to be an executive, he very often serves as an absolute antagonist to people with real executive talent.  They don’t “manage” like he does; and so they can’t be senior.  He blocks progression by the very virtue of his ignorance.

The more senior the high performing manager “sticks,” the more his foibles and contra-indicated style will metastasize in the organization.  It’s bad for the organization not only because the organization has a sub-optimal leader in an executive position; but also because latent executive talent votes with its feet.  It finds its place elsewhere. They know better.

So what? 

The leap between manager and executive is every bit as big as the leap between a high performing analyst with a spreadsheet and the manager of a pool of analysts.  The skillsets and mindsets are worlds apart.

The lessons of this particular “Coffee and a Do Not” are these:

First, executives should never, ever delegate vision.  Doing so is confusing to the organization and the result of it–a micromanaging executive–is actually a very strong indicator of a disengaged, demotivated organization.  (If you are interested, here’s a study from Stanford University that backs that assertion.)

Second, companies must have solid executive development, evaluation and coaching processes. People can learn. While executive talent is an intrinsic thing to some degree, executive behaviors are teachable. Ideally, high performing managers get to understand these things before they get their first bite at the executive apple.

Third, high performing managers and under-apprenticed executives need to develop themselves. If you are one of those lucky, high velocity, high performing managers who finds yourself in a senior executive role before really being apprenticed well enough…Go home at night and entertain the remote possibility that you might not be all that in your new role.  Be willing to listen…up and down in the organization.  Look for mentors.  Reflect.  Think.  Improve.

Delegation of leadership vision is an upside down, bizarre outcome of a leadership culture that under-prepares people for the next steps in their careers. This is a situation that individuals need to guard against and that companies need to watch out for.

Being a high performing manager and being an executive are very different things.

Executives need to be visionary.  No, not Steve Jobs visionary; but at least “next three years” visionary.

If this is your particular weakness, know this:  Trying to delegate vision will frustrate your organization, handicap its performance, and (assuming a well-governed company) shorten your tenure.

Do not delegate vision.

Finding the Yin and Yang of Leadership Culture

All I ever needed to know about leadership culture came from two stickers on a desk 30+ years ago.

This is an article on reflection on and appreciation of the lessons one’s childhood can provide. As a parent, I’m fond of thinking about how kids see the world. As I’ve grown, I’ve realized many of the lessons I needed for later in life were right in front of me. It only took time to understand them.

First, some autobiography…

I had the great privilege to grow up around a couple of entrepreneurs.

No, let me rephrase that…

I had the great privilege to grow up around a couple of drop dead risk takers.

Few people get to do that.

That privilege came with the ups and the downs of business ownership in an era of significant change. I was immersed in both the elation of business success and the absolute devastation of bankruptcy.

My childhood included vacations in Aspen and L.A.–a real treat for a kid living on the Gulf Coast–followed by an extended stint living with relatives and years of palming a “free or reduced lunch” card to the lunch lady at my high school.

Such is life, and I’m a lot better for it.

Still, I learned about what risk is and isn’t; and about what accountability, likewise, is and isn’t.

The cool part, though, is what I learned by osmosis in those years of walking around smaller businesses and the people in them. In that environment I had free rein to explore all kinds of cool equipment, and to interact with all sorts of people.

One of the businesses was a private ambulance service, the other was a telephone answering service.

In one business, I got to play around in an old Cadillac ambulance like this one:

Yes, it was Ghostbusters style (or, for a more apt but obscure cinematic description of the operation as I remember it: Mother, Jugs & Speed).

Ours was blue.

I can still smell its interior and see the duct tape on one of the seats where the rotary-dialed radio telephone (yes, rotary) was installed.

In the other business, I was witness to the transition of telephone answering services from old-fashioned telephone switchboard operators–no kidding, like Lilly Tomlin’s “Ernestine” character–
to computerized switching. I spent so much time around those operators that I can still today recite some of the customers:

“M&M Patio, may I help you?”

Those operators doing their thing still ring through the ages for me. All this was in the time before voicemail largely displaced that particular profession.

Enjoying my free rein, I could play with old telephone equipment to my heart’s content, and I could explore the emergency medical equipment and tools in all directions.

I knew what an Ambu bag and mass trousers were before I could diagram a sentence.

I learned how to patch a switchboard at the same time I learned to ride a bike.

I had full access. In retrospect, it was a part of my childhood that was replete with lessons.

What I learned

Both businesses were 24x7x365, reactive operations. As the son of entrepreneurs running businesses of this sort, I grew to expect that mom worked the holidays.

More significant than that: I never, ever, witnessed an adult say “that’s not my job” or “I’m off today, somebody else will handle it” or “I’m calling in sick today.”


It was no big deal…we knew why.



Risk taking.

That simple reality alone has had a profound impact on my life and work, not to mention on the (low) level of my appreciation for paycheck players and iron bureaucrats of all sorts.

The entrepreneur’s life wasn’t easy, but it was colorful.

To this day, I’ll take colorful over easy anytime.

But, I digress.

It was about the people…

The part that was most interesting is what I took away from the people; and that’s what this article is about. 24X7 professional operations of these sorts have a lot of downtime for the people in them.

To wit, I can remember building model airplanes with one of the EMTs, learning how to properly wash a car and change out spark plugs from another; and getting to know all sorts of people who worked in the business–old, young, men, women, black, white, creole, Asian, serious, funny, mean, nice and all points in between on each.

Such personalities and the inherent downtime of the operations mixed to produce some amusement and some lessons for a kid like me wandering around the operation.

Which brings me to this:

How I found the Yin and Yang of leadership culture in the bunk room of an ambulance service

In the sleeping quarters for the overnight ambulance crews–replete with bed frames hammered together with pine 2x4s and framing nails–was a steel desk. I’d be willing to bet it had been picked up at an army surplus auction back in the 1970s.

At some point, a person had used a cool-for-that-time-period Dymo label maker, one like the one in the picture here, to leave behind some wisdom on its right side pull-out writing surface.

That person, likely bored beyond comprehension and enjoying a moment toying around with the label maker; pressed out a phrase.

It read:

It’s the basic definition of accountability. The Yang of leadership culture.

Probably thinking it was a good phrase to live by (or just a way of ribbing other crew members), the person peeled and stuck the phrase to the writing surface of the desk.

At some point later, a second person took the same labeller and pressed out Phrase 2. It read:

Phrase 2 was stuck just below Phrase 1… as a sort of quasi-professional, realpolitik-driven retort to the self righteousness of Phrase 1. The Yin of leadership culture.

I suppose I discovered the two stickers when I was 8 or 9 years old. I have never spoken or written of them until I decided to write this short article.

Probably half of that is because of the language they are written with isn’t all that polite; and half is because it has taken me a long time to really grasp the significance of their brutal and ironic simplicity.

The significance of the Yin and Yang…

Now, language aside–and, yes, I spent all of my childhood around a crew that could curse the paint off the walls–these two phrases encompass two very different and very relevant sides of leadership culture.

One one side are the people who take responsibility. On the other side are those who duck responsibility.

The dark and the light.

The Yin and the Yang.

You have, in the form of two very basic phrases, the foundations of organizational and leadership culture.

Just as the Tao I’ve used in the opening image for this post implies that light and dark reinforce one another, and to a small degree reside within one another; these two sides of leadership culture reinforce and infiltrate one another.

In most organizations, there is a competitive equilibrium between the accountable set and the avoidant set. The accountable ones find positions and actions that are profitable, and the avoidant ones do the same.

It is in the behaviors that we, the leaders, reward that we determine which set gets to be dominant.

Which animals do you feed, and which do you slaughter?

I’ve seen organizations feed both sides. Based on that, I’d choose accountable.

Why this matters

I hope you’ll take away two things from this story:

First, this matters because great leaders give credit and take responsibility.

Do you find yourself in a culture where people do that? Or, at least, do you find that accountable people are rewarded more than avoidant ones?

Or, do you find yourself in a culture where people give responsibility and take credit? They lay off risk and lay on the stories of their successes.

It’s a simple assessment. Are the most accountable people in your organizations also the ones most likely to be “slaughtered” when the fan stops spinning?

It’s an existential question for individuals and for organizations.

Second, I hope you’ll see that this story matters because your organization and community is training its next generation of leaders.

No, it’s not doing so through your training programs.

It’s doing so through the equivalent of a label maker and a desktop.

The informal culture wins the day. The behaviors that get fed day in and day out are the ones that grow.

It really doesn’t matter what speeches, brochures, or PowerPoint documents you distribute.

The reason I went into detail on the autobiographical vignette is that I was made a better professional and leader by the diverse and sometimes “not-fit-for-kids” environments that I was able to explore and experience.

The diversity of experience I was blessed with has made me better.

I’m sure, somewhere out there, there are kids (and young professionals) who still get those types of experiences; and I hope all of us as parents and leaders will encourage them.

In the meantime, the rest of us can learn by osmosis from this particular Yin and Yang of leadership culture.

Feed the accountable ones.

Please share your thoughts on this article below…

Piketty, WSJ, and the Grain of Salt

Author of Capital in the 21st Century writes a brief clarification. WSJ publishes a disingenuous claim that he’s backtracking.  Lesson emerges.

One of the sensations in the economic world last year (if economists can, in fact, be sensational) surrounded the book Capital in the 21st Century by Thomas Piketty.

If you haven’t read the book, keep in mind that I do recommend it, while I realize it’s not for everyone. Piketty explores historical government data to reach a few very basic conclusions about the accumulation of capital in a market economy.  His main conclusion is that the rate of return on capital typically outpaces the rate of growth of any given economy (which he summarizes with the formula r>g) thus creating a long term wind of accumulation that creates unsettling wealth disparities.  In the book, he also is very clear that the long term wind can easily be overcome by shorter term shocks; and, he refers to the world wars and their effects on old line wealth in Europe as an example.

Piketty’s book implies that, instead of relying on global conflict and political upheaval, it might be better to have a policy answer to leveling wealth disparity.  It’s not a bad idea.  It might not ever get out of the economist’s classroom, but still…

It’s an interesting read; and, Piketty’s proposal of a tax on wealth is actually quite compelling in theory.  It does, however, have a sort of “belling the cat” feel to it when one looks at the world as it is.

However, this article isn’t about reading, it’s about being a discerning listener even when you don’t read.

The case…

This week, I came across an opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal by Robert Rosenkranz.

Here is your LINK to Rosenkranz’s piece.  I encourage you to read it…with a grain of salt (I’ll explain).

In it, Rosenkranz states that Piketty, who drafted and released a paper in December essentially restating his conclusions but ensuring that popular discourse didn’t caricature them improperly, is “backtracking.”

Here is your LINK to that paper (beware the link opens a PDF of an academic paper…Don’t open it if such things burn your eyes).  It’s an interesting read and actually a fine distillation of many of the conclusions of the book.

The issue…

I do not know Mr. Rosenkranz or his profile; but something struck me…To anyone who reads this stuff and has a sense of the backstory, Rosenkranz’s article is fantastically disingenuous.

Mr. Rosenkranz, like so many others with a microphone these days, is depending on the probability that very few of his readers have actually read Piketty’s book.  So, he takes a paper where Piketty restates the fundamental conclusions of Capital and comes up with this (my emphasis added):

“Now in an extraordinary about-face, Mr. Piketty has backtracked, undermining the policy prescriptions many have based on his conclusions. In “About Capital in the 21st Century,” slated for May publication in the American Economic Review but already available online, Mr. Piketty writes that far too much has been read into his thesis.”

He also takes a statement in Piketty’s “new” paper and positions it as a “new” conclusion.  To wit:

“Instead, Mr. Piketty argues in his new paper that political shocks, institutional changes and economic development played a major role in inequality in the past and will likely do so in the future.”

Nevermind that Piketty is simply restating arguments of his book.  Rosenkranz, who doesn’t even link to Piketty’s “new” paper, seeks to discredit the economist by claiming he has “backtracked” and “consigns his famous formula to irrelevance” and that Piketty is “walking back” his views.

Piketty is doing nothing of the sort.  His paper is simply a reminder that the book had a lot of angles and to take only one angle and politicize it would be malpractice.  Unfortunately, Mr. Rosenkranz takes that exact tack.

So what?

Sleight of hand such as that employed Mr. Rosenkranz brings to the forefront a major issue in the popular press today:  The dependence of writers and speakers on the ignorance of their audience.

One need only look at the comments on the article to see that (1) very few people have actually read Piketty and (2) all Rosenkranz really did was engage in an extended ad hominem.

That, my friends, is demagoguery at its finest; and if it’s in the Wall Street Journal, imagine what others are doing.

The lesson on this is not “be a fan of Thomas Piketty” or “Piketty is right.”

I, personally, believe that massive intergenerational wealth is something to beware of. To engage in a little demagoguery of my own:  Any red-blooded American ought to have the same wariness.  

The lesson is that intermediary authors like Rosenkranz can and do distort and attack in order to provoke.  They do so even when the provocation is actually detrimental to healthy discourse.

These distortions happen on all sides of any argument, which, I suspect, is why Piketty felt the need to publish a few pages of “clarification.”

The Joy and Pain of Bureaucracy

Bureaucracy is bad…when it’s self serving. 

The Financial Times published an excerpt from David Graeber’s book ‘The Utopia of Rules: On Technology, Stupidity, and the Secret Joys of Bureaucracy.’

Here’s the LINK.

In the article, Graeber outlines how “bureaucracy,” typically a word used as a slur by die-hard capitalists, is actually the source of a covert love affair.

To wit (with my emphasis added):

“In this sense, bureaucracy enchants when it can be seen as a species of what I like to call “poetic technology” — when mechanical forms of organisation, usually military in their ultimate inspiration, can be marshalled to the realisation of impossible visions: to create cities out of nothing, scale the heavens, make the desert bloom. For most of human history this kind of power was only available to the rulers of empires or commanders of conquering armies, so we might even speak here of a democratisation of despotism. Once, the privilege of waving one’s hand and having a vast invisible army of cogs and wheels organise themselves in such a way as to bring your whims into being was available only to the very most privileged few; in the modern world, it can be subdivided into millions of tiny portions and made available to everyone able to write a letter, or to flick a switch.

I’m no fan of useless structure or artifice.  But I do like effective structure and relentless clarity.  Sometimes, a little bit of engineered bureaucracy provides that.

Further, in my professional experience, the irony is this:  Those who decry “bureaucracy” the most tend to be the ones who are protecting their own, personal, “democratisation of despotism.”  They cry out against control that is not their own…regardless of its impact on effectiveness.

The real measure ought not be the amount of bureaucracy applied to a given problem, but whether the bureaucracy actually makes you or your organization more effective.

Perhaps one person’s bureaucracy is merely another person’s way of making sense of the world.

It’s bad when it’s self serving.



Should We Eliminate The “A Player” Trope?

A recent Forbes publication calls into question the offhand assignment of “A Player” labels.

On the heels of my article on how organizations handcuff their talent (link here); and my use of the “A Player” meme in that article to boot, I find an article that calls the entire “A Player” meme into question.

And I like it.

In Forbes, Gainsight CEO Nick Mehta published an article titled Silicon Valley Mythbusting: Rethinking The Concept of ‘A’ Players.  In this article, Mehta dives into some of the structure- and leadership-oriented issues related to talent; and as the title suggests, calls into question whether the “A Player” label is actually a transferable thing.

Here’s your link.

The operative quote from the article is this:

As a leader, you get paid a lot to do your job. It is your responsibility to find the right people for the right roles with the right manager. It is also your responsibility to coax the best performance out of your team, and using terms like “A Player” does them a disservice. On the other hand, you can build your team into the best they can be, both together and individually: then you’d have an “A Team.”

Mehta’s article outlines how a so-called A-Player in one company could very well be a failure in another.  He brings it down to fit within company culture, fit within role, and fit with management.

So what? 

Mehta’s analysis (and mine in my handcuff article) is a take off on the old nature vs. nurture debate.  To be clear, it is not an appeal to the mindset of “we are all the same.”  I don’t see where Mehta is saying that all players are the same; but rather that it’s very hard to read talent from a single situation (great or otherwise).

It brings up questions like:

Is talent really situational? (I’d argue, yes)

Does a talented “A Player” really have the passport to be an A Player anywhere, or has the A Player really been shrewd (or lucky) about the factors that Mehta outlines (again, company, role, management)? (I think it’s a little bit of both)

Do we do a disservice to our entire talent base, as Mehta suggests, by labeling some people “A Players?” (In my opinion, maybe…especially if the culture allows that an “A” grade is untested after it is conferred.)

Finally, shouldn’t we be focused, as leaders, on building the highest performing team and not the team filled with the highest talent individuals?  (Yes, yes, yes…A thousand times)

Parting thought:

I have had the privilege of working alongside senior executives who have the talent to fit right in across any number of corporate cultures and leadership positions.  I have also witnessed under-talented and opportunistic executives who by happenstance, good luck, obsequiousness,  or sharp elbows found their only possible senior executive position in the entire world.

Knowing both, I can say that situation matters.

Senior leaders should be humble enough to assess others’ talent across time, company, and role.  Nick Mehta is onto something.

What do you think?