Top WGP Blog Posts of 2016

WGP’s most popular posts in 2016, and a few strong late entrants.


2016 has been another fun year on this blog.

The blog itself is nearing 200 posts since 2014.  That’s hard to believe. While it makes for a nice hobby, I have to admit that I fully appreciate the supportive comments and suggestions I receive.  I appreciate all of you who read regularly.

As we get ready for the new year, I thought it might be good to list some “most popular” reads from 2016.  This is totally unscientific, of course–posts from January 2016 get more play than posts from December by virtue of exposure time. So, to offset that advantage, I’ll put a few “honorable mentions” at the bottom.

The blog’s top 10 posts in 2016 were:

  1. A Song for Me At 23 – Some personal reflections on work and life as a youngster.
  2. It Ain’t What You Put Into It That Counts – Why an overweening focus on input is a loser’s game.
  3. The Pain of Mourning Alone – Some reflections on the importance of team and community in hard times
  4. What You Learn is What Matters – Reflections on making the best of any circumstance.
  5. Shark Tank And Manufactured Choices – Why it’s important to take a breath and evaluate all your choices.
  6. Real Talent Never Dies – A tribute to Prince and his influence–written in strategic talent terms.
  7. What Tesla’s First Autopilot Fatality Teaches Us – A short stab at the challenge of a killer product.
  8. Why I Don’t Believe In Recruiters – An experience-based screed about recruiters and headhunters and how to use them.
  9. The Worst Strategy Metaphor In Use Today – An older post about the “chess fallacy” in business strategy.
  10. When The Spin Stops – Why the Theranos case shows the limits of spin and hyperbole.

And, a few honorable mentions from the second half of the year:

  1. That Dead Guy In Your Organization – Why you put it in their belly, not their back.
  2. Cheese, Change, and Cheyenne – How to handle change, and why that matters.
  3. When Your Karma Runs Over Your Dogma – Why leadership via questionable means can come back to bit you.
  4. Ooh! That Smell – Why it’s important to know whether your organization stinks.
  5. They Believe In Good Ethics, Too! – A post from early October about how highly unethical people can thrive in highly ethical environments.

Onward to a great 2017!


Why You Need A Little Intransigence


An effective organization has a little intransigence.


The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.

 – George Bernard Shaw

Meditate on that quotation for a minute.

Now, think about whether you have ever encountered the marginalization of an “unreasonable” person.  Once you’ve been in leadership positions long enough, you come to accept that it happens.  The brilliant researcher whose ideas are just too outlandish gets ignored by the cool-kid MBAs because he’s too likely to call their spin what it is.

The exceptional sales person whose ideas would revolutionize the way the company sells is just too aggressive with senior management to “get things done” the political way.

It happens all the time.

Now, think about someone you know who has actually built or turned around a company.  Think about how much of their style depended on being accommodating and flexible vs. directive and uncompromising. You will find a lot more of the uncompromising style in a real builder.  The easiest ones to name are nearly caricatures of doing things their own way–think Jobs, Rockefeller, Ford.

Somebody, somewhere, thought each of them were “unreasonable.”

And, there’s a lesson in these two thoughts.  You, as a leader, might buy into the notion that you have to go along to get along.  That’s fine, but you have to realize that real progress–real growth–requires people who are willing to challenge the status quo.

If you find yourself marginalizing people with new ideas because they don’t “get” your earnings target, you are part of the problem.  If you find yourself being bothered by someone whose entrepreneurial push to get you to try new things threatens your own well ordered sense of the world, you are limiting progress in your organization.

In short, if you aren’t the unreasonable one, then you need to find a few of them on your team.

There’s probably a critical mass of “stubborn” on a given management team.  I would guess it’s somewhere more than 20% of the team and somewhere less than 50% of the team; but I believe that proportion depends highly on the leader of the team.

A leadership team composed of a group of acolytes who only seek to enshrine themselves alongside the leader can be successful in the short term (if you read this blog you know that I believe that anyone can be successful in the short term).  But, it will lack the capacity to challenge the status quo.

Don’t murder or marginalize your unreasonable ones. Find a way to “dose” and channel the stubbornness into new things.  Create forums for intransigence and revolution.

You just might build something.

Bang The Drum

Honor the task by bringing what you have to the table.


It’s Christmas.

This season comes with so many rending contradictions.  They include greed and generosity, faith and commercialism, cheeriness and emotional doldrums.  They are all there.

In trying to think about a worthy topic to write on, I was reminded of the Christmas carol “The Little Drummer Boy” when my 7-year-old son chose it as his carol to lead at a cub scout meeting a couple weeks ago.

The scout leader chuckled and said “ok, we’ll try it” with a knowing tone of “nobody really knows that song…”  And, I agree.  Its odd time and slow pace make it one that usually is experienced through formal performances.

But the song carries a message that resonates beyond this season and beyond reverence for the birth of a savior.  The message is in the lyrics, and I’ll just pull out the essence to make it easy.

The story is of a young person who is called to see the newborn king by other people who are bringing their finest gifts.  He, a poor boy, realizes he has “no gift to bring / that’s fit to give a king.”

So, he brings a drum.  And, he plays it.  He says “I played my best for Him.”

And, then the King smiles.

In the churn that is the holiday season, it’s good to hear a message of effort.  It’s good to hear a message of humility that depends on doing the best with what we have.

You or I might be called to do something “great.”  We might be asked to do more than we think we can.  And, we might realize we have no capabilities fit for the task.  But in most cases we have a skill of some sort.  We have something we can offer to the task.  We have, at the very least, a drum to play.  We can honor the task through effort and faith, rather than cower from it by giving in to our feelings of inadequacy.

This may sound like a very personal thing.  It is.  But it’s also a professional thing. You are probably embedded in an organization that has a few drums sitting on the shelf. There are talents that are buried out of fear or neglect.  The art of enlightened leadership is to find the strengths you have, and to put them in play.

You might only have one strength.  You might only have a drum…so only bang on it.

Bang the drum the best you can.

Merry Christmas!


Finding Value in Your Vision

Your vision for your career and your company should start with an articulation of the value you provide.


Does your vision articulate value?  It ought to.

Often, in the middle of coaching discussion with young professionals, I asked a basic question:

“What do you want to accomplish?”

The responses I receive to that question are often telling.  In some cases, I get interesting, highly functional visions of the next step in a career:

“I want to become a trusted finance leader.”

“I want to become the best project leader in the company.”

“I want to be an expert on M&A processes.”

These are visions that imply a strong value orientation.  They imply delivery of value on the way to accomplishing the vision. One cannot become a trusted finance leader without developing the skills necessary to, in fact, be a trusted finance leader.

Sometimes, though, the answer is more problematic:

“I want to get promoted.”

“I want to run a business.”

“I want to be a senior executive.”

These are visions that imply a strong status orientation.  They create ends that are status driven. One can “get promoted” under the wrong circumstances.  One can “be a senior executive” without developing the skills and capabilities necessary for the task.

Having witnessed multiple highly corrosive senior executives who were placed via the machinations of their own ambitions rather than the value they provide, I can tell you that fulfilling someone’s vision of position and status is exceptionally dangerous if that vision is not accompanied by a vision for value.

And that’s the point of this post:  Vision devoid of value is rubbish.

But, though I’ve articulated the examples above in terms of individuals’ visions for their careers, individuals aren’t even the worst offenders.  I know plenty of individuals who are great professionals but who can only articulate vision for their career as “promotion” or “a raise.”

They will be okay (if a little shortsighted).

Where the vision-devoid-of-value issue often comes up–and causes the most damage–is actually in business strategy.  We see status goals articulated as vision all the time.

“We will double the size of our company.”

“We will be number one in our market.”

“We will be a great place to work.”

These are all corporate level equivalents of “I want to be a senior executive.” They are status oriented visions.  They pass for leadership art in companies the world over.

And, they are entirely insufficient.

Shoot for specificity in the value you will provide.  Articulate a vision for that value…and then, go!

Can you articulate a value oriented vision for your career?  What about for your organization?

At WGP, our own vision statement could use some of the scrutiny I’ve suggested here.  We say our vision is to be the premier strategic advisory firm in the region.  What we really mean is to be the premier strategic advisory firm in the region because of the quality of our insights, advice, and people.  

There’s a difference.

What do you think?  How do you articulate a value-driven vision?


The Asymmetry of Action

Seeking massive upside can lead you to inaction.  Watch out for “asymmetry driven inaction” in your strategic plans.


Sometimes you have to kiss a few frogs to find a prince.


In the lexicon of strategy and strategic plans, the word asymmetry is a useful one. But, it’s a dangerous one.

There is information asymmetry in negotiations.

There is asymmetry of outcomes for a strategic decision.

There is asymmetry of allocations: talent, resources, mindsets, and any other “resource” that can be allocated.

Asymmetry is everywhere. It’s the real world. We can engineer symmetry through repetition and reduction of variability, but reality is filled with imbalance, particularly in the land of business strategy.

Business strategists rarely have the luxury of making the same decision over, and over, and over, and over again. They usually have a few big decisions to make, and they have to guard them very closely.  Why?  Because the world is finite.  There are only so many customers you can piss off when trying to get your sales approach right.  There are only so many acquisitions targets you can approach with the wrong pitch before you run out of them.

True strategists face a series of one-shot games. They can learn from their shots, but each game is different. Each deal has a different flavor. In fact, if you sit in a position where you face only a continuous series of outcomes vs. a discontinuous one, you are probably not a strategist. You are a portfolio or risk manager. Those are not the same thing.  A true strategist has to account for everything before taking one shot.

And, this accounting is where the real danger of taking popular and business press too literally comes into play.

The popular press likes anecdotes, and can lead you to try to mimic anecdotes that simply don’t fit your model. And, in search of an easy “positive asymmetry,” you read an anecdote about how company X has created massive value via acquisitions.  You then go to mimic the actions of company X without understanding the strategic context or capability sets company X had to its advantage.

The academic press isn’t much better.  You read an academic study about how, on average, business transformation efforts fail.  This leads you to pooh-pooh the notion of driving big change in your organization.  “There’s too much downside.”  And, yet, the academics have only generalized from a broad set of companies without outlining the real strategic and organizational contexts at play.

So, the popular press can lead you to seek only those moments that “look” like the founding of Facebook; and the academic press can convince you that management initiative has too much downside.  You bog yourself down in “inaction” by taking both anecdotes and statistics too literally.

So what?

We all want more upside than downside. We all want massive “positive asymmetry.” It’s a natural desire. It’s analytically comfortable.  We all want certainty.  But what happens when our search for massive upside leads us to sit out the game? What happens when we choose to do nothing as a rule vs. as a strategy?

We waste time and resources. That’s what.

I once knew a senior business leader who was given a beautiful portfolio of opportunities and the sponsorship to do whatever he wanted. The problem? The guy couldn’t get out of the spreadsheet.  He couldn’t place moderate size bets that might pay off because he kept looking for bets that would only pay off.

He, therefore, did nothing. He destroyed value by stripping away valuable assets and capabilities to meet earnings targets, but never really got off the dime when it came to making possible bets.

He squandered a beautiful opportunity to grow and inspire.

Doing nothing–whether it be with your career, your business unit, or your corporation’s resources–has a cost. It has downside.

And, an easy way to do nothing is to only look for sure things–massive “positive asymmetry” in the bets you place.  In my experience, massive positive asymmetry only exists ex post.  It exists before hand only in some popular press anecdote.  The strategist who achieved it usually knows there was a struggle to get there.

They know what frog lips taste like. Go, kiss a few frogs.

What do you think? 

How To Win The Bad Times

Winning in bad times starts during the good times.


It doesn’t take a much of a pessimist to suspect that the U.S. economy might be in for a reset if not for a recession in upcoming months.

I know, I know: Rates are low, the stock market is bubbly, the yield curve is normal, unemployment is at 4.6 percent, and the newspaper of record is saying that the current U.S. president is “handing a strong economy to his successor.”

In fact, things are quiet.

Too quiet.

We’ve survived for a long time on monetary stimulus pumping currency into the system, cheap debt underwriting everything from sports cars to sociology degrees, and a hefty entitlements-driven safety valve removing the discouraged unemployed from the workforce.

So, which is it?  Are we in the best of times, or the worst of times?

What do you think?

Regardless of my views on the macroeconomy (which are neither as good or as bad as I imply above…more on that some other time), I’m what you might call a micro-optimist.  That is to say that while Dickens may have described entire country economies in his tale of two cities, I actually subscribe to the notion that prosperity is exceptionally local…personal, even.

So, whether or not we as a populace face bad times, I’m a believer that you as an individual or as a business leader need not assume you are at the whim of the macroeconomy.  The best business leaders I have known are not victims of circumstance. They have through-cycle mentalities to prepare for great during bad, and to prepare for bad during great.  If bad times are looming, how do you win the bad times?

Then, if things are great, how do you have the mindset to ensure you will win during the bad times? Let me list 5 ways:

1. Ensure you win on the sales front. A rising tide lifts all boats, but it also masks a lot of foundering skiffs. If your sales efforts are doing less well in good times than they ought to be, then you have plenty to fix today. Is your sales force hitting its numbers on its talent, or on pure market beta and order taking?  If it’s the latter, then you’d better watch out when the order window line dwindles.  Go figure out how to generate and close leads in the good times.  It won’t hurt.

2. Put on your “tough times” service hat.  Yeah, I know…you are busy.  Times are good.  You may think it’s okay to ignore a few of those calls from customers or employees or potential partners because, well, you are making your numbers.  Let me tell you something:  People remember. If you want to claim that you are a high-touch servant leader, but you decide you have enough business now and don’t need to call people back after 5pm, then saddle up for a drought when the dry spell hits.  It won’t hurt you to call people back and let them know you are too busy at the moment to help.  Seriously.

3. Overinvest today in strategic marketing–to see the cracks. Without a doubt, the biggest recession excuse is “we didn’t see it coming.”  I’m not a fan of planning for recessions (or even predicting them) but am a big fan of understanding customer and end market sentiment through a hefty investment in listening. If the good times are upon you, your customers are happy, and your order book is full; it can be challenging to go ask customers or downstream buyers what they think.  It can be even more challenging to invest dollars to do so.  It won’t hurt to know whether ripples are coming.  Besides, your head in the sand–even when the sand feels good–is ignorance.

4. Take a minute out of your day to run a few scenarios. It’s an interesting facet of good times that they can cause us to stop thinking.  Still, plenty of leaders know which customers are already high risk, which facilities are already at the margin of the cost curve, and which products really aren’t cutting it.  What happens if you lose one or all?  Do you know?  What is plan b?  It won’t hurt to have a plan b.

5. Look at the market for talent.  Oooh, this one can feel scary. You as a leader should have a look at who is hiring (maybe even for you), and what kind of talent is bouncing around on the market. Have a few conversations with recruiters about where the activity is and where the softness is.  Know what kind of talent is currently in demand, and where there’s a glut. This can be both personally relevant to you (you may thank me one day, mr. or ms. executive), and professionally relevant to the quality of the team you build. Just because you aren’t hiring doesn’t mean you ignore the market for talent.  It won’t hurt.

There you have it.  5 ways to, perhaps, prepare for drought when the rain is falling.  In order to be great in bad times, you have to be great in the good times. It won’t hurt.

Go get’em.

Now, what do you think?