Got Talent? Prove it.

Talent can only look good on paper for so long.

I happen to follow a certain college football team that has been in the process of breaking in a new quarterback while having–at the same time–one of the most exciting backs in the game. The new quarterback looks good on paper: Big guy, good athlete, strong arm.

Half a season ago, the new quarterback (and, no, there’s no reason to get into names because that would be personal and there’s too much press on these guys as it is) was coming along very slowly.  He wasn’t showing much, but made a few plays.  The coaches would say he was “doing what was needed” while the superstar back did his job and basically carried the team.

Only, the back couldn’t do it all.

And, the quarterback–when asked to do more–hasn’t been able to deliver.  The so-called smart money is starting to move from the incumbent new guy to “player to be named later.”

The quarterback, able to ride along with great talent, didn’t have to make many plays.  But, when it came time for him to actually carry the team, he hasn’t been able to do so.  It’s a truism in sports just as much as it is in business:  When bringing new players online, it’s good to develop them slowly. This is especially true if you can surround your new players with great talent.

But, eventually, the new players have to answer the bell…on their own.

This post is about answering the bell.

The “point” of this post for management and boards

Developing players is a critical part of any manager’s role in an organization. And, knowing whether you’ve chosen the right players is a substantial part of any executive’s or board member’s role.

So, what does my little football vignette tell you?

1. Developing players slowly is fine, but you have to have a glimpse.

Just like the quarterback in my story above, it’s fine to place a new executive in a role and let them get used to the organization and culture before making decisions. It’s fine to move people into roles slowly.  But you have to see something of substance during the transition.

You have to see them want to make a decision or two.

Ask yourself:  Have I seen a glimpse of the production I need from this new player?

2. Surrounding new players with supportive talent is great, but the new player has to bring something to the table.

I’m a big fan of “scaffolding” new hires and new executive teams with supportive structures that get them up to speed. In the story above, our new quarterback has an all-America back in the backfield with him.  That makes things easier.  Surrounding new executives with talented people who provide data, insight, direction, and suggestions goes a long way toward “apprenticing” great new talent.  But, how the new player responds to the scaffolding can be instructive.  You’ve placed a new executive at the head of a team of high talent sales people. Do they start to bring anything to the table, or do they just “hold office?”

If they just hide (or just warm their seat), especially behind other talent, then you need to know that.

Ask yourself: Does the new player produce without leaning inordinately on the talent around them?

3. Eventually, everybody is exposed.

This may be the most important point. In fact, it’s the point that prompted the post.  Eventually, your player’s talent will be tested.  You will have to have your player stand up in front of your board or a key customer and perform.  They will eventually have to answer the call.  Their scaffolding will be stripped away, they will have had enough time to absorb and reflect. They will be laid bare.  What happens then? If you are counting on an incompetent hire–whether it’s your account manager in sales, your VP of HR, or your CEO–to hide forever (or even just until you retire), then you are playing with fire.

Eventually, everybody is exposed. Some are exposed faster than others.

Ask yourself: Will my new player survive exposure as the individual talent they are supposed to be?

4. Other people are watching.

Your new player may take longer than you planned to develop. That can be ok. Unless they are exposed early, timing can be flexible. You hire a new guy to do a bunch of M&A work, and it takes years to get off the ground. That can be fine.  But…and it’s a big but…you have to watch out for collateral damage.  A CEO who comes into a new company with board mandate but without much vision or knowledge can only survive for so long before the executive team and the organization realize the new emperor has no clothes. Same can be said of any new hire or new player.  I’ve witnessed senior leaders who make no decisions of any substance due to their own lack of conviction and knowledge.  They wander hither and yon without any real point of view–letting the rest of the team do the real work.

One senior executive I spent some time around spent more time contemplating the design and furnishing of facility renovations and figuring out ways to manage around board meetings than he ever spent on business strategy, customer value propositions, financial plans, or anything else that might have been “strategic” to an executive of his standing.  Whether through lack of insight, energy, or ability, his “happy place” just wasn’t in actually doing the job of a a senior executive. His people knew it, and it hurt.

If you are the person who hire the “hither and yon” executive, you have to know that such hires reflect on your own competence.

Ask yourself: Is my new hire hurting my organization and my own reputations via his own incompetence?

So what?

All of this is to say one thing:  In the world of strategic management, player selections can only look good on paper for so long.

The players eventually have to show glimpses.

They eventually have to carry the load on their own.

They have to survive exposure.

Your performance depends on it, not to mention your reputation.

What do you think?

What You Learn Is What Matters

The cool part about life is you can learn from it, no matter the circumstances.


“I could have missed the pain, but I’d have had to miss the dance.”  Garth Brooks, The Dance

1996.  While it’s not a year that will live in infamy for anyone else, it’s pretty close to that for me.

You see, 1996 was perhaps the first year that my own mindset was laid bare to me. This weekend I had the opportunity to stand with some of my former teammates from the 1996 Stanford University Varsity Football team to commemorate our win in the Sun Bowl.  Here’s the picture (that’s me, 2nd from the right in the white shirt…standing among giants):


Only, for me, there’s more of a personal side of that football season now 20 years ago.

I missed the whole thing.

After a promising prior season where I was a starter on a good team as a redshirt freshman, I came into 1996 with high hopes of becoming a “great” collegiate offensive tackle.  Only, those hopes were put on hold in the heat of a preseason practice when I suffered a severe knee injury.  I can still, to this day, hear the voice of the gentleman standing to the right of me in the picture above saying “ooooh” out loud as the athletic trainer softly flexed my knee sideways to see if it had any ligaments left in that direction.  It didn’t.  It lacked a couple of other structural components as well, so I missed the 1996 season.  I was ecstatic to be able to put on a uniform for the Sun Bowl that year (it was, after all, months post injury), but never played a down on the field.

Now, as football careers go, I’m happy with mine. I went on to start for a couple more years, and got to sip a cup of coffee with an NFL team. This isn’t about that.

After my “off” year in 1996 (anybody who has rehabbed a multi-ligament knee injury knows that I was anything but “off work” that year), the San Jose Mercury News ran a headline that read “Back From the Scrap Heap,” signaling my return to spring practice. I guess I had been on the scrap heap, but one thing is true:  I learned a ton from that awful experience.

Setting aside all the obvious things I had to learn about biomechanics and ligaments and rehabilitation and recovery, a few other things stand out:

I learned that being an awful critic of yourself isn’t the best way to see your strengths. You see, before and after injury, I never was able to look at videotape of myself on the football field and feel good about it.  Never.  I never really took pride in watching myself play.  I guess that sounds sad to some, but to others–possibly those who keep looking higher–it probably makes sense; and I think it has probably been at least one really key mindset element of my own development athletically or otherwise: I was never really very good at anything, in my own eyes.

On the day I was injured (the injury happened in the morning), I crutched my way into the film review room with my teammates and, probably for the only time in my playing years, really appreciated the images of myself on film from that morning’s practices before I was hurt. I saw a player who was not perfect but who got things done. I didn’t see the wrong footwork and the awkwardness and imbalance that I constantly saw when I was “healthy.”

I was there, facing the loss of playing time and perhaps whatever sliver of athleticism I once had, and I was able to see myself with an appreciative eye vs. an entirely critical one. The takeaway for me from that experience has never been that I’m actually better than I think I am so why worry…the takeaway has been that it’s important to stop and look for even minor glimpses of strength in my own game and in those of others around me so that I can build on those. I think that has made me a better leader in the 20 years since than if I had survived with only a critical eye intact.

I learned that it’s possible to will one’s self beyond pain.  I know it sounds cliché and maybe even self aggrandizing; and I don’t mean it that way.  But, one of the funny outcomes of my little rehabilitation exercise was a quote in the newspaper from Stanford’s head athletic trainer about my “pain tolerance” being off the charts.  I say it was funny because while I guess having high pain tolerance is a useful thing, I can assure you–I felt it all.  One does not simply recover range of motion in a wrecked knee without working through some pain.  I think that I had worked through pain prior to that experience, but never appreciated the need to “zen up” and just go through it.  Such a learning has been instrumental during the hardest times of my professional life.  I once faced an entirely distasteful, months long pseudo-negotiation with two unsavory characters that–in my down south code of honor–probably deserved to come to blows. I figured there’s more to life than that, so…zen up.  Fight through it. Be nice.  Swallow the pain. Get it done.

Finally, and probably most importantly for this blog to make any sense to anyone other than me, I learned that suffering alone is the pits, and being insensitive to someone who might be suffering alone is even worse. I’ll make light of the first part. In the depths of physical rehab, I had a CD of the band Alice in Chains doing an unplugged live performance. You haven’t lived until you’ve listened to the song Down in a Hole on repeat while overcoming the ego depleting darkness of a major injury.  Had I stopped there, I probably would have been down in a hole for a long time.

Luckily for me, I had friends, and I had support of teammates, trainers, and coaches.  I don’t know that I could have made as complete a recovery as I did had I not had those things. I think knowing this has led me to seek counsel from a very tight set of friends whenever the going gets tough in my professional career–even when faced with adversaries who really wanted me on an island. I’ve seen senior executives leave companies without having a single friend or supporter, and I wonder how lonely that must be.  While Frank Capra may have been a little generous when he allowed George Bailey to read he words “no man is a failure who has friends,” I think there’s some wisdom there.

Alone is a bad thing.

As to insensitivity: I had a teammate on that 1996 team who faced a potentially season limiting injury due to some major bone chip issues.  He is in the picture above.  I remember it being revealed to him with me nearby just prior to my own injury and I remember seeing the x-ray.  I also remember making some offhand, flippant remark about how “that sucks.”

I basically balled up this guy’s whole athletic career and tossed it into the bin of things incidental to my own.  I’m embarrassed to this day about that, and he doesn’t know it. I probably wouldn’t remember my own insensitivity had I, not less than a few days later, faced the obliteration of my own season.

So there you have it…critical learning from a bad, personal experience years ago. I’ve never forgotten those lessons, and the constant dull ache and floppiness of my left knee hasn’t let me forget the injury even 20 years later.

If I can pull out something of use to anyone reading this blog, it’s this:  No matter what you are going through, keep your mind open enough to learn. Some experiences–whether positive or negative–amplify your senses and thought processes to the point that they would not have otherwise been amplified.  Be willing to learn during those times.

It’s easy to say I learned a lot by playing sports.  I learned how to work hard. I learned how to be accountable.  I learned how no matter how much a person talks about being great, demonstrated greatness is what matters.

But it’s perhaps more important to realize I learned a whole lot by losing the ability to play sports.

Somewhere, someone is reading this while going through personal tragedy.  Their tragedy may be incidental to everyone around them. My encouragement is twofold:  Be willing to let the experience build perspective, and seek out people who can help and support.  An open mind during dark circumstances sets the stage for growth.

I’m not a self help writer.  These are just reflections from a personal experience from a time long ago that was commemorated publicly this weekend–reflections that have affected my life. Many of the guys in the picture above would even chuckle that I’d be writing words like “sensitivity,” “encouragement,” and “seek help.”  But that’s perhaps humorously beside the point, which is: Wherever you are…Always learn.

What do you think?

They Believe in Good Ethics, Too!

Just because leaders believe in ethical behavior doesn’t mean they partake. 

“You say you have faith, for you believe that there is one God. Good for you! Even the demons believe this…” James 2:19 (NLT)

“We have a pool and a pond…the pond would be good for you.” – Ty Webb, Caddyshack

It’s not every day I get to mix a Caddyshack quote with a bible verse. But, hey, it’s Sunday.

Do you believe in a high ethical standard?

Good for you!

Did you know that the biggest espousers of ethical cultures are sometimes the biggest violators of the ethics they espouse?

Sounds dark and cynical, doesn’t it?

Stay with me. There’s perhaps some light at the other end of the tunnel that will save you from being run over by a train one day.

Ethical behaviors or any of its similar corporate recruiting poster cousins like “values” and “principles” are important. And, shockingly, ethical culture can grow up around an unethical individual, even if that individual is in a leadership position.

Why? Because for some unethical predators, having a roomful of highly predictable ethical brethren is a useful thing. And, as long as nobody’s really looking, the unethical leader can be on the take for years…

…all the while leading an ethical company or organization.

Just as patriotism is the last refuge of scoundrels, I’d propose that ethical cultures are the best hiding places for the unethical.

In some of the most ethical environments exist leaders who trade on inside information; discriminate based on race, gender, and age; make choices that destroy the environment and families; break non disclosure agreements; talk freely of petty felonies; and warm the books for personal gain in ways that leaders in less sterling environments could never get away with.

They cheat and steal when they can, usually under the cover of plausible deniability.

They may fall to the lowest legal standard when the ethical standard is much, much higher. They may fall far below the legal standard when they know nobody will suspect them.

Probably worse, and perhaps much worse, they stand by while others do these things–knowing that it’s suicidal to try to poke the bear.

I’m embarrassed to know that these are facts.

The point of this post is that we, as leaders with an enlightened code, have to know one thing:  even unethical leaders recognize the value and actively espouse the growth of ethical cultures, for such cultures are dense cover, and fertile hunting grounds.

I am not likely the world’s most ethical person. I know that, and that knowledge fuels a desire to watch out for dents.

Like James from the verse above, I find it important to know that just because I or someone else believe in something (one God or an ethical standard of behavior) doesn’t mean that I or they are on the good side of that belief.

Demons believe in one God, too.  Unethical executives love the cloak of an ethical culture.

They believe in ethics, too.

They just believe in ethics like Ty Webb believed in sharing his pool with Spackler. The pond will be just fine for the little people.

Be on guard when it comes to the espousers of ethical cultures, especially those who wear badges to signify their “success” at building one.

Some of them are unethical predators that depend on a herd of ethical animals.

What do you think?

How Do You Know When It’s Over?

How do you know when it’s time to move on?


“They never reach out when they’re giving up.” – Better than Ezra, A Lifetime

I once observed a poor manager become keenly and demonstrably irritated at the thought that one of his charges didn’t come to him for advice.

“[He has] turned away, and I’ve offered advice over and over again.”

It was brilliant theater with fantastic words, but the truth of the matter was this:

The manager’s charge had given up on him long ago.  After months of watching the manager make silly decision after silly decision, the direct report was done.

How do you know when it’s time to go?

How do you know when it’s time to find a new boss, or a new employee, or, bluntly, a new CEO for your company?

It’s when your interactions with your boss or employee shift from a dialogue of active discovery and discussion to a dance of passive avoidance.

Colin Powell once said the following:

“The day the soldiers stop bringing you their problems is the day you stopped leading them.  They have either lost confidence that you can help them or concluded that you do not care.  Either case is a failure of leadership.”

The same can be said of followers…  Once your boss stops coming to you with problems to solve, you’ve probably lost her confidence and failed at the task of being a productive team member–or you’ve shown you don’t care.  I’m not quite that categorical…after all, I’m not suited to solve all my people’s problems and they aren’t suited to solve all of mine. But, I am bought into the core notion.

And, you know what? Unlike my original example where the leader failed (frankly, was a failure), it’s actually not always the leader’s “fault.”

It can be nobody’s fault.

It can just be time to move on.

Taking the time to realize when things aren’t clicking is integral to any leader’s thought process. Sometimes, when you no longer seek discovery and discussion, it’s better to seek greener pastures.

Sometimes, when your direct reports no longer engage with you, you need to self-reflect on whether they and you belong together.

Because they never reach out when they are giving up.

What do you think?

Painting Pictures of Egypt

Wanting what you had won’t get you what you want. 

Have you ever been stuck looking backwards?

You look at the past, and it looks so easy. Perhaps this is because it was easy. Perhaps you were lucky once. 

This is a post about working the problem–any problem–forward. If you take nothing else away, take away the knowledge that hindsight is not only 20/20, it’s viewed through vanity-tinted lenses. 

Now, if that hasn’t captured your imagination, I don’t know what will. So, here it goes: 

There’s a lyric from a Christian artist named Sara Groves that goes something like:

I’m painting pictures of Egypt
And leaving out what it lacks
The future looks so hard, and I want to go back.

The reference is, of course, to a hypothetical point of view of a member of the Jewish nation, just freed from bondage under the Egyptians, and now facing an uncertain future.  

I imagine a person, flooded with trepidation about wandering in the wilderness, painting portraits of Egypt that showed it “wasn’t as bad as we thought.”  

The future looks so hard, and I want to go back.

For those of us who think about the past and the future a bit too much, it’s a very comforting lyric, in some ways. 

 When I talk to executives nearing the end of their careers, I find it interesting to hear about their “best job.”
It’s often fun to realize that, contrary to conventional wisdom, their best job is rarely the highest paying or most prestigious one. 

It’s the one that came with purpose. 

But a hallmark of successful senior executives is that they work the problem forward. They focus not on how great things were last year or how to maintain the status quo, but on what the current state of play is, and how to make it work well. 

They don’t paint pictures of Egypt. They look for the promised land. 

How does this work for you, today?  Maybe you are sitting and thinking about how great you had it in that sales role in the ’90s. You forget about the steady harangue of the regional Vice President, though, don’t you? 

Maybe you are leading a company that had a much easier competitive environment 5 years ago. You might be forgetting that it was easier simply because you were big and the competition were dying in the GFC.  

Are you working the problem forward, or trying to re-set to simpler times?  It matters. 

Companies die when their leaders try to do old things in a new environment.  If your leadership team is running the cost reduction play that got them through the GFC, and it’s 2016 and the world has moved on, your team might not be working the problem forward. 

We all do it.  We all look back on some level. 

But, wanting what you had won’t get you what you want. 
Maybe painting pictures of Egypt isn’t all that productive after all. 

What do you think?

Discourse Tactics of the Weak Minded Executive

Watch out if you use these arguments…they show you are lazy.

Now and then, you come across a management tactic that is as frustrating as it is weak.

This article is about a few deflection tactics I’ve seen managers use, and why they convey a weak mind.

Picture it:  You are recommending a course of action to a senior manager.  You’ve done your homework, figured out the right course, and put together a solid set of facts.

And then you get smacked in the face with a bit of lazy logic…only it’s the kind of lazy logic that can’t be argued with…because it’s the kind of argument that, if you call it out, proves the arguer is a raving lunatic.

Try these on for size… 5 argument tactics of weak minded executives.

Type 1:  The Straw Man

You:  We really ought to protect Bill in accounting during this round of layoffs…he is a strong contributor.

Them:  Yeah, but we can’t save everyone…

Hey…mister manager…I didn’t say “let’s save everyone.”  I said, “let’s save Bill.”  There’s a difference.  “Saving everyone” is a straw man.

Type 2:  The false dichotomy

You: Investigating the salty snacks segment has merit.  There could be a few gems in there.

Them:  Yeah, but I’m not going to sink millions in capital to get in there, so why bother.

Dear leader: There wasn’t an investment proposal, much less one that requires millions.  You made that up.  Your idea that it’s all or nothing?  That’s a false dichotomy.

Type 3: The ad hominem

You: The marketing team put together this outstanding set of data that says we should pull back from the frozen snacks area.

Them:  The marketing team?  The next time I get a good recommendation from them will be the first time.

Dear boss:  Perhaps this is the first time. Attacking the group that created the data does nothing to advance your strategy (or reputation as a critical thinker).

Type 4: The pocket veto

You:  We are ready to make a decision on the omega project.

Them:  Where’s my jacket, I have a lunch appointment.

Managers who won’t make decisions are worse than those who make bad ones.

Type 5: The reductio ad absurdum

You: He’s a bit high priced, but he’s the best sales rep I’ve seen, and I’ve seen a lot.

Them: Yeah, but if we hired everyone at this price, we’d go out of business.

This manager not only makes an absurd generalization, but he also betrays ignorance of how talent markets work.

I’m sure you have plenty of examples of argument tactics used by managers when they just want to avoid the issue.  The key for all of us is to address decisions directly. Using weak minded tactics not only proves that you are a lazy leader, but it makes you look bad, too.

These are tactics used by little minds everywhere. Often, some of the “smartest” executives go to them on a daily basis.

What do you think?