A Song For Me at 23

If I could tell my younger self what matters in professional life…I would tell him this.

I walked out of college a free man, but I didn’t know it.  I may have been a free man with a limp and a headache thanks to a few too many days on the football field, but I was free.

I had no money to speak of and drove my girlfriend’s car. Luckily, I now know, I also had no debt. Along with that, I think I had a healthy appreciation for hard work.

Still there are a lot of things I wish I had known at that age as they relate to business and executive life.  There are things you just don’t learn in school, and many of them relate to interpersonal or even personality-based observations. That’s why I’m writing this. I figured that I can put out a few points that I wish I had known at 23, and I figure they might help someone else along the way.

One thing is for sure, they will help you understand my professional worldview.  If you read this blog, you know that it’s about worldview, and these points represent scar tissue; none of them has been fatal (totally), and some of them represent processes that have made me the professional I am.  Read them, and then tell me where I’m wrong (or right).



Dear 23-year-old self:

You are about to embark on a career.  It’s going to be fun, frustrating, and probably not as fast-moving as you would like, so I’m going to list a few suggestions here that will give you a leg up in your career, and perhaps in your life.  Many of them you won’t be able to understand until you’ve experienced the situations themselves, and that’s just life, but some of them might help you be better prepared for the situation.

  1. Invest the time on your own or in a class to learn principles of accounting and finance cold.  I know it’s an odd “reflection” to start with on a list like this one, but it’s true. Sure, your liberal arts education is valuable because it helps you to think…Sure, whatever.  But what’s really valuable is knowing how to assess organizations’ financial health, understand the time value of money, and peer into how decisions are made vs. how they should be made based on the numbers. No matter where you sit, knowing the numbers gives you a leg up, so you need the tools to learn how to know the numbers.  If you don’t know what a T-account is or can’t explain why a company would invest in a project that will lose money for five years, you need to go back to school.
  2. Acquire a healthy skepticism for title and wealth. These are not always an indication of the quality of person you are dealing with.  Like British accents, titles and wealth can lead you to a false sense of security that the person you’re working with is smart and accomplished, and that is in fact often the case, but not always, and the same goes for degrees and credentials–the guy with the engineering degree from State can often run circles around the Harvard MBA.
  3. Beware anyone who thinks work hours are defined by the calendar.  “My” holidays and “my” vacation are signs of a paycheck player.  If you’re on a professional track, opportunity comes at all times in all shapes.  That guy who calls you at 9 pm on a Friday?  He probably has something important to say.  I once had a manager answer the phone in Europe at 2 am local time when I called from the U.S.  I had no idea where he was, and he made no protest during the call.  I didn’t find out until later that week, after he had returned to the U.S., that he had even been in Europe when I called. I asked him why he answered, and you know his response?  “Might have been important.”  I love that guy.
  4. Working harder than other people does not guarantee you success or wealth.  It might provide you with some dignity, however.  Remember Boxer from Animal Farm?  He was the noble horse who always worked hard for the cause, no matter the direction.  The work didn’t take away from his nobility, but it did kill him–he literally worked himself to death.
  5. Learn and understand the snowdrift problem in game theory.  This one is kind of nerdy, but it’s real everywhere. There will always be people whose first move in a tough situation will be to wait for somebody else to do the hard work.  Be sure that you think about accountability carefully, and if you’re always the one shoveling snow, be bold enough to get out.
  6. Recognize that there are people without consciences, and they are probably better at the political game than you.  I once observed an executive execute the most deceptive game of bait and switch I’ve ever seen, and shortly after that, he offered advice and support to the person who had been baited.  The kicker?  The executive knew he was being deceptive–he offered his advice with the phrase “I don’t know why you would trust us, but here’s the advice.”  The nerve.
  7. Find a way to serve.
  8. Learn to manage for the short term, but get out of any situation that manages to only be short term, because your life will (hopefully) be long. It’s important to learn how to manage for the short term–to cut costs and rein in spending or maybe seek additional sales to cover a shortfall elsewhere. And it’s okay to manage to the short term–that’s where we all eat.  But it’s also important to realize that just as alcoholism is the diseased extreme of enjoying a good drink, short-termism is both a disease and a kind of addiction: The more you do it, the more it becomes insidious.
  9. Hotheads aren’t always bad.  I had a boss early in my career who was the greatest guy to ever throw his keyboard across a room; he was a tantrum machine, but he was also a guy who genuinely cared.  Know the difference between a grade-A jerk or asshole and a good person with a strong sense of duty but also a temper.  There is a difference.
  10. Where there’s no contract, there’s no contract.  Here’s a piece of advice that’s going to sound more cynical than it is.  No, I’m not saying “always have a contract”; I’ve negotiated multi-million dollar consulting engagements that were founded on the client’s trust and the consultant’s commitment to excellence, and I believe in the power of a person’s word and handshake. But, and this is an important but, many people like to use the ambiguity of no contract to gain advantage.  So my advice to you is to always know when there is no contract–know your counterparty/client/customer, and your boss (see what I did with that last one?), as well as you know yourself.  Don’t rely on contracts, but know when you don’t have one; no amount of flattery and gushy feelings at the start of a relationship will overcome the poor values of a counterparty who won’t define or fulfill commitments.
  11. Beware anyone who goes out of their way to say they are giving you friendly advice.  They probably are neither giving you advice nor being your friend.  True friends don’t have to reiterate the point; you know them by their deeds.
  12. Liquid net worth provides flexibility. Whether you’re a shop floor worker or a CEO, money is important, but it’s really liquid net worth that matters; I know plenty of senior executives who are miserable but completely locked down to a bad team, bad company, or bad leader due to their own financial choices.  Always keep enough liquidity on hand to be able to walk away without regret; that means you should accumulate a few thousand bucks when you’re just out of college, and it might mean hundreds of thousands of dollars once you’ve “made it.”  Financial handcuffs are tough, which brings me to my next point…
  13. People make really bad decisions when they’re under financial stress.  This can include executives cooking the books (or even “just” shading them surreptitiously) to make their bonuses, but it can also include things as innocuous as salespeople treating customers poorly or manufacturing workers doing their jobs poorly.  You really don’t want to have a workforce that’s worried about whether they can make their next grocery bill, and more than that, you don’t want a CFO who will make rotten financial and personnel decisions just to make a bonus.  The love of money is the root of all sorts of bad things–I read that somewhere.
  14. Care.  Yes, I mean that: Care.  You will be tempted (in fact, encouraged in some environments) to acquire social and emotional distance from the people some think you will have to hurt to be successful; it will come with the challenge to “do what it takes” to keep your job.  But don’t be fooled–care.  I was once offered a role that implicitly came with the need to fire a couple of people I had coached and mentored and whose capabilities were strong. It wasn’t the right thing to do, so I didn’t; I chose to leave.  On the way out, I was goosed with a comment and critique about not doing what it takes, but that’s just a consequence of caring.  You know what else is a consequence of caring?  Loyalty, love, the ability to sleep well at night.  In short, your life will be better because you took the time to care.
  15. Trust is cumulative…in both directions.  You will live life with a sense of trust in people you know you can rely on, but you have to learn to know when you have enough evidence to know you can trust someone, and also to know when you can’t. 
  16. Respect the dignity of other people.  There are a lot of instances in life when it’s easier to double cross, lie, shade the truth, and walk away–resist that temptation. Stripped bare, we all rely on others. So respect that, and you’ll go a long way.
  17. Life and business are not zero-sum games. You’ve made it through college, and maybe played some sports.  If so, you’ve gotten used to winners and losers, but life isn’t like that.  In life, there are winners of all sorts and losers of all sorts, and sometimes there are situations when everyone is a winner (or at least not losers).  Really effective executives I know think about when they are playing a zero-sum game and when they have the opportunity to grow the pie, so learn to realize the beauty of growing the pie.   Zero-sum games are in actuality very rare–we only make them common. On a related note,
  18. A spreadsheet can’t show you how to grow the pie.  Unfortunately, math without vision only leads to reductive incrementalism.  Very, very few spreadsheets would have predicted the rise of Standard Oil, the emergence of digital music, or the turnaround of Apple Computer. Numbers don’t lie, but they don’t think either. Vision has to be injected into that spreadsheet; don’t mistake tools and math for strategic vision.
  19. When it comes to people, where they (and you) stand depends on where they sit.  Upton Sinclair famously noted that it is difficult to get a man to understand something when his livelihood depends on his not understanding it. Perspective matters, and if you get good at taking different perspectives, you’ll start to understand how other people think, although it does take time and practice.  By altering where you sit and then thinking about where you stand, you start to think interesting thoughts when it comes to business strategy.  Funny thing is, you also start to think differently about the world.  Perhaps John D. Rockefeller (of Standard Oil) really did save the whales; perhaps Steve Jobs is actually the cause of a generation of hearing loss and an epidemic of traffic fatalities; and perhaps, just perhaps, what you’re being paid to do isn’t good for the organization or the world.  Get beyond your salary when it comes to what right and wrong look like. Stretch your thinking, and be bigger than your smallness.
  20. No matter how much garbage they eat, seagulls are not really good creatures to have around. Seagulls fly in, beg for food, take a dump, and then cackle a lot; some people are enamored with them, but in reality, they’re just rats with wings (as we used to say back home on the Gulf Coast).  Seagulls live at the beach and the dump, and in human form, they often live in corporate environments.  My advice for you is to learn to be a problem solver, not a problem finder; cultivate a constructive approach to life, not just an observational one. Justify your existence, and don’t be a seagull.
  21. Know how to incrementally assess situations.  The incidence of “good from far, but far from good” in people and companies is increasing because the channels of communication are increasing; it’s far easier for companies to cultivate high-profile brands that cover up lowlife cultures.  On the flip side, it’s far easier for motivated individuals to learn a lot about any situation in a short time frame. Learn to assess situations at first glance, after a few minutes, after a few days, and after months.  Learn to take the time to sleep on decisions, and do your due diligence, but also trust your gut.  This is especially true about people: If people look and smell unethical even though they’re wearing ethics as a badge, disregard the badge and go with look and feel.
  22. Don’t be a “yes” man, but realize that being a “no” man is just as bad.  Yes men are common in any culture; they go along to get along.  It’s a fact of life, but not a very edifying existence, so find a way to have your own point of view or else you’ll be redundant.  But the opposite position is equally bad; the “no” man rarely encourages growth or expansion.  Try to think about growth as coming from a combination of yesses and nos, and live in the mess between the absolutes.
  23. Be exceptionally careful about “following orders.”  Just following orders can give you a mental freedom that allows you to ignore basic ethical principles, and ultimately it can corrupt your values.  Have the self-respect to reflect on orders, and recognize that they shouldn’t supersede your humanity.
  24. Your network is everything, but you have to know what a network is.  A real network is not the number of people you’re connected to–it’s the number of people who will do something for you if you’re in need, and there is a huge difference between the two. In my early days, people thought networking was collecting business cards; nowadays it’s probably LinkedIn connections–but both are wrong. Networking is finding reciprocal relationships that help you by your helping others.
  25. If you’ve made it this far, you probably already know this, but reading is a highly underrated skill.  I’d argue it’s second only to listening.
  26. Finally, and perhaps as a wrapper…Preserve your self-respect.  There will be plenty of times in your career when you’ll be faced with choices that can erode your self-respect; sometimes it’s just as simple as taking a call in the middle of a family event, and sometimes it’s worse. You’ll find months of your career that are bad for your health–it is going to happen. But even if one day you find that you have to make a choice you know is wrong but you have to do it to preserve a broader agenda or position, just be sure you know the stakes.

I’m sure you’re off to a fantastic career.  Enjoy it, and maybe one of these points will save you from a scar or two.


Your much older self

All In

We say we are “all in,” but do we mean it?


In 1519, the explorer Hernando Cortes scuttled his ships off the coast of Mexico.  He did it to ensure that, for his expedition in the new world, retreat would be extremely difficult.  The only way through was forward.

What does it really mean to be “all in?”

I think that’s a question all of us have to wrestle with at some point in life.  For sure, a big part of being a strategist is calculating the risks…knowing the outs in a situation.

But for those among us who only focus on the outs, the outs become the ends.

I can recall a management team focused on constantly ensuring their outs.  The default approach to management was to pad.  Pad the numbers, pad deadlines, pad assertions in conversations. In the spirit of Jim Collins’ book Great by Choice (and I’ll save a salvo for anecdotalists like Collins to be delivered another day), the management team took the case study of a climbing team on Everest packing extra oxygen to ensure two summit tries–a real life and death situation–and applied it to everyday management. There were conversations on “extra oxygen” that related to padding of cost estimates, deadlines, etc. It was, like it probably is in your organization, art. The “outs” became the ends, because when everybody is padding their estimates, nobody is engaging on the truth.

The issue with that anecdote is that “extra oxygen” for one person is, quite literally, “sandbagging” to another.  If I only focus on my extra padding, I never actually get to the point where I can execute a real thrust.  Imagine our friend Cortes, sword in hand and wrapped in layers of padding.

He couldn’t win a fight that way, and neither can you.

Which brings me back to my question…  What does it really mean to be “all in?”

On the sports field, you can tell the ones that are all in by their actions.  Athletes who are all in know one thing:  Somebody, somewhere is working hard, possibly harder than them.  Athletes who are all in burn their figurative ships every. single. day.  They train until they hurt, and they play hurt.

On the football field, I never saw a truly great player…one who was all in…who didn’t play with significant injury.  That went for my best friend the kicker as much as it went for the most pounded on defensive tackle on the field.

While sports metaphors are perhaps a bit overplayed, I think they provide a picture of “all in” that is at its purest.  The athlete lives a life within a life.  From the moment a great competitor achieves greatness, her skills are deteriorating.  Time is undefeated. Athletes know that their time is limited.  They know that their skill will go away one day, and that they will be left to remember them.  So, elite athletes are simply better at role modeling “all in.”

Sure, it’s sometimes to an extreme… NFL Safety Ronnie Lott famously chose to have the tip of his finger amputated to preserve his opportunity to play in the Super Bowl.  That’s all in. I’ve seen athletes play with broken bones, torn ligaments, twisted joints, and crushed hands.  Why?  Because time is running out.

And that, my friends, may be the best lesson of all on being “all in.”  At some point, time runs out on all of us.  Whether we are serving a client, or playing in the Super Bowl, we know that time is undefeated. Being all in means having the grace and fortitude to suck the marrow out of our skills.

My favorite anecdote actually comes from Hollywood.  In the movie Rocky, the titular character gets a shot at the best fighter in the world while dealing with his own decline from never-really-got-there.  In the midst of the fight, Rocky is beaten, bloodied, and blind from the swelling on his eye.  Sitting in his corner, he utters a famous and altogether meaningful plea to his trainer…

“I can’t see nothing.  Gotta open my eye.  Cut me, Mick.”

Faced with the ravages of time and a shot at going the distance (not winning, mind you) with the champ, Rocky burned his ships.  He asked his trainer to demolish his face by cutting it with a razor to relieve the swelling…for one more chance.

Most of us will never be faced with a choice like that…The choice to seek the knife or the needle just to perform one last time.  But we do face choices as to how hard we play. We do demonstrate how badly we want to get what we can from our skills.

What does “all in” really mean in a professional setting?  I can’t say for you.  I can say that, for me it means making the most of what you have, and not letting the “outs” dominate the “ends.”

I’d love your thoughts on this one.




Have it M.A.D.E. With Your Team

A short primer on how to lead yourself and your team.

Remember when you followed somebody else who really wasn’t great at managing process? Remember how you used to talk about how no one knew what to do or where to go next?

Remember when you finally had to lead other people, and you realized how hard it is to manage other people toward a goal?

Yeah, me too.  I have found that the best leaders combine a keen intellect–thought leadership–with a keen sense of process leadership.

You can find process leaders out there who are world class, and you can find thought leaders out there who are world class, but the Venn diagram doesn’t overlap as much as you would think.  A world class leader understands the content, intent, steps, and closure point for an initiative.

And…everything is an initiative.

But how can us mere mortals define reality for our teams?  I’ll put it in four points you must define.

First is your mission.  The mission is the message.  What is the intended result…not the action steps, but the outcome.  You have to start with this.  We expect to increase margins by 200 basis points.

Second is, oddly enough, the activities.  You have to give at least some definition to the steps you will take.  They may not be exactly right, but you have to prime the pump. We will investigate discounts offered on our key accounts by pulling the last 6 months’ data.

Third is the deliverable.  Yes, it’s an aggravating word for me as well, but it’s a useful one.  What are you going to deliver?  We will propose specific actions to achieve the mission.

Finally, you need to define the endpoint.  When is the word actually done, because the deliverable isn’t always it. We will consider ourselves finished when changes to key accounts are accepted by the key accounts manager. 


It’s a simple framework for leading pretty much anything.  You might say you can have it M.A.D.E. when you use such a simple process to define reality for your teams.

Good luck out there.

The Commodity Paradox

Why serving commodity markets could be a great opportunity to differentiate.

If you work in B2B marketing, chances are you have heard or even uttered the words ‘It’s a commodity market. We’ll never make any money’. Yet in all my years in consumer marketing, I don’t think I’ve heard the ‘c’ word once. Think about it. Grocery store shelves are creaking with products that at the base level are commodities. Take milk, for example. It doesn’t get more basic than that, yet look at all the options – different fat content, source, packaging type, shelf life, flavor. They’ve even figured out how to get milk from an almond.
While there are many differences between B2C and B2B marketing, notwithstanding the size of budgets, there are some things that B2B marketers can learn from their consumer-focused peers.

1. Know your customer
Consumer marketing companies spend millions of dollars each year keeping up with their customers. You may not have a huge research budget, but having a deep understanding of your customers/potential customers is critical if you want to differentiate your offering. It goes beyond knowing what’s important to them. The answer to that is almost always ‘price’. You need to scratch beneath the surface to truly understand their decision-making environment, motivations, experiences and pain points. They may be operating under the constraints of their organization, but the key to identifying and unlocking true value is through understanding your customers as humans versus organizations. This will allow you to develop and communicate offerings that resonate.

2. Think outside the widget
Consumer marketers also remember that there is more than one ‘P’ in the marketing mix. You may be manufacturing widgets, but your customer probably doesn’t think in terms of widgets. They are trying to get a job done and if you are armed with an understanding of their world, their challenges and what they value, you can sell them a solution to their problems instead. So if their job is to keep a production line running, you could, for example, offer ‘guaranteed up-time’ through a maintenance and repair package. If they value speed and convenience, online ordering and expedited shipping may get you ahead of the competition. Concerns over a retiring talent-base could be addressed through instant tech support for less experienced employees etc. etc. There are many levers that you can pull outside of the product itself

3. Sell the value – consistently
Once you understand your value proposition, every customer touch point should support it, consistently. McDonald’s and Starbucks both sell coffee. However, the retail environment in Starbucks probably makes you feel better about blowing $4 on a cup of joe. If you are selling the value of speed and convenience, having someone available to answer the phone promptly is probably a good idea. If you are selling technical superiority, ensure your most knowledgeable staff are in front of customers and arm them with the appropriate skills to identify the needs and sell the value accordingly. As an example, in order to compete in the over-crowded arena of IT services, IBM pulled PhD’s from their R&D team and put them on sales calls, then began to offering PhD brainpower to solve customer problems.

This is clearly not easy, otherwise there would be a lot fewer commodity markets. It takes a different mindset, a lot of confidence and an appetite to invest for long term growth, underpinned by a commitment to executional excellence. However, if you can crack the code, there are almost certainly customers out there, willing to pay premium for a product or service that makes their life easier.

So are you ready to be a Fruit Loop in a world full of Cheerios?

When Your Story Misses The Point

Narratives are fantastic…as long as they don’t skirt the point.


A couple of nights ago, I had the opportunity to watch the musical Les Misérables in NYC.

This was not the first time I had enjoyed the production.  I have fond memories of seeing the show about 15 years ago in San Francisco.  It was, however, the first time I’ve seen the show since actually reading the expansive and impressive book by Victor Hugo that the musical is based on.

The musical production was outstanding. If you’ve never seen it, it’s well worth your time. The music, the characters, the settings, and the story all combine into a moving experience.

But it got me thinking about something that might be relevant to our strategic management lives.

At the risk of going full literary nerd, I’ll try to keep this short.  Victor Hugo’s novel Les Misérables is a scathing polemic. It is a tour de force that takes apart real social issues of justice (and grace), poverty, class, politics, sanitation, and struggle.  The novelist went to great lengths to describe not only how things were in France, but why they were and perhaps what needed to change. This latter point he rarely takes on directly…leaving it instead to the reader to interpret his often sardonic references to things that just don’t make sense. He used characters to bring his narrative to life. And, he did that well. Hugo’s own words introducing the book show his purpose, and here they are.

So long as there shall exist, by reason of law and custom, a social condemnation, which, in the face of civilization, artificially creates hells on earth, and complicates a destiny that is divine with human fatality; so long as the three problems of the age—the degradation of man by poverty, the ruin of women by starvation, and the dwarfing of childhood by physical and spiritual night—are not solved; so long as, in certain regions, social asphyxia shall be possible; in other words, and from a yet more extended point of view, so long as ignorance and misery remain on earth, books like this cannot be useless.

Victor Hugo had a point.  He had an aim in writing the book (while in exile from his own country, I might add):  Illuminating the often senseless mechanisms of government and culture that conspire to destroy lives.  On some level, his illustrations ring as true today as they did 150+ years ago.

The musical play takes the characters and makes a stunning production–a stunning narrative–out of them, but only touches on the rest of Hugo’s point.  The play takes the characters–who were many ways incidental to Hugo’s point–and makes them the point.  And that ok, but only because one is a book and one is a play.  Which brings us (finally) to the point of this post.

The point…

Narratives–even really beautiful narratives that are moving and exciting and stimulating–can miss the point. This is true for a musical play on Broadway as much as it is for your leadership or business strategy.

The only difference is that people can still get their money’s worth from the Broadway play that is off point from the original work, while your business can run off the rails (and have you run off on  a rail) if you resort to creative narrative that misses your strategic imperative.

What do I mean by that?  Well, let me illustrate a few painfully real examples.

Company 1 has a real financial problem driven by the decline in demand for its products due to a real change in customer preferences. In small group sessions, management knows this reality and calls it out as a crisis.  In forming their creative and stimulating narrative, management buries the reality under a glossy brochure of product leadership, employee engagement, and brand.  The “book” that management writes confronts the issue directly.  The “play” almost buries it.

Company 2 has a clear threat from a much larger company whose product might also be better. In small group sessions management admits that its product might not be up to snuff.  In the narrative delivered to the entire organization, their own “outstanding product” is front and center.  The narrative misses the point of a real need to improve the product–urgently.

These examples are out there every day.  Why is it that more people have seen the play Les Misérables than have likely ever read the book?  Well, it’s because watching the play is easier.  It’s easier to digest and then to go on about your business.

And, that’s a good thing.  It’s the reason we use narratives to communicate strategy.  That’s why engaging employees around a great presentation or video or brochure can actually be effective.


The narrative has to be on point.  The story you form to communicate your strategy must not bury the point. It has to confront the elephants in the room.

I suspect that if Victor Hugo were to magically appear at a production of the musical version of Les Misérables he would be astounded and flattered…and he might see called out implicitly in the play some of the social ills he worked so hard to call out in his book.  But, he would probably also know how much the convenient and entertaining narrative leaves out.

And, sometimes, it’s what you leave out that matters.

I’d love to have your thoughts on this one.