Good leadership means that sometimes, you just have to eat that egg

A distinct ability to push through when you just don’t want to is a leadership virtue.

Geoff Wilson

I played a lot of (American) football a long time ago. One of the annual rituals of a football team is training camp, where the team practices intensely for a number of weeks in preparation for a season of games.

Back in the olden days–otherwise known as the 1990’s when I played–training camp consisted of about three weeks of two-a-day practices that involved a tremendous amount of physical strain. Players would wake up, get ready for practice, pound on one another on the field for a few hours, ice up, rest up for an hour or two, then pound on each other again in an afternoon practice. Interspersed around those practices were a lot of meetings and reviews intended to get the team’s mental game in order.

Training camp was intense. And with the physical strain came the need to take care of one’s body.  Players had to ensure they were treating their injuries, and getting enough nutrition. And that’s where the title of this post comes from. At some point during training camp, usually around the end of the first week when the pounding was getting hardest and your body hadn’t adjusted fully to the new normal, your appetite just shut off.

You had no appetite. But you had a mental acknowledgement that you had to eat in order to keep weight on and energy supplied. Breakfast invariably came with an egg or two, and I can remember just staring at a plate of eggs, thinking that I would vomit if I ate them, and knowing that I had to get the calories into my body despite that thought.

So, you just had to eat the eggs.  You had to do what you knew was the right thing to do despite the stomach churning reality of the situation.

The same thing is true in leadership.  Today, you might be facing the need to make a call or start a reorganization, or to prepare a proposal that is the right thing to do, but that you just don’t want to do…all the way down to your bones.

All I can tell you is this: eat the egg. You need to do it.

You know it.

What do you think?

How to keep culture from crushing progress

Big ideas aren’t enough to change things. You need powerful sponsorship.

This anecdote has played out more times than reruns of the original “Star Trek” series, so bear with me as I set it up.

The situation

Geoff Wilson

A highly motivated, energetic, experienced new hire is brought into the organization as an agent of change by the business unit’s president. The new hire is brought in because she thinks differently and has rich and relevant experience in organizations that look the way her new organization’s president and leadership team say they want the business unit to look over the long term. She is the poster child for effective organizational change leadership in appearance, word, and deed.

The new hire does what all highly motivated, experienced hires do: She gets to work. Carrying the president’s imprimatur by virtue of being hired, she starts propagating new ways of doing things—perhaps on processes like project management or in performance areas such as pricing or cost efficiency. She’s driven. She’s smart. She’s organized. She’s logical. She’s practical. She is, quite possibly, right.

The president of the company, sensing the strong glow of a great hire, lets her “do her thing” without guiding or intervening. After all, that’s what great leaders do: They let great people go “do their thing.” Right?

The organization’s leaders quickly sense a world of pain coming from changes to the ways things have always been done. The changes aren’t necessarily bad—just different.

Fast forward to a year later. Our motivated change agent is watching the clock. She’s waiting for 5:48 p.m. every day (that’s just late enough to not signal that she’s thrown in the towel). Her great ideas sit on white boards and in documents across the organization. But progress has been slow. She’s figured out that the organization really didn’t want all of her resume—just a few parts. Her job is easy. Her life is hard.

The leadership team, having figured out that she had no power in the first place, decided that the change agent’s recommendations, while smart, were too painful for them to implement. They have marginalized her through passive and deliberate pseudo-compliance and back-channel opting out. When one functional leader delays participation with good reason, the rest simply follow suit.

The president has entertained every grievance. By making backroom agreements on who needs to comply and who doesn’t, he has undermined the change agent—unintentionally, but still.

The organization likes her. But, hey, “Those great ideas could never work here.” And besides, the president sure didn’t seem to mind that key leaders opted out.

The president wonders why there hasn’t been more traction on his new hire’s ideas, but in reality, he just likes the fact that the business unit is performing well this year and that everyone will achieve nice bonuses.

The change agent polishes up her resume.

When our once-motivated, now-crushed change agent leaves for greener pastures, the organization gives itself a self-righteous pat on the back. See, they were right all along.

The change agent and the president (if he is a person of vision and integrity) wonder what happened.

Here’s what happened

First, the president quickly moved from a position of obvious sponsorship (he hired the change agent, after all) to a role of spectatorship. He removed the most important tool in his change agent’s toolkit: the lever of executive sponsorship.

Second, the change agent—armed with the confidence that her ideas would work and work well—fell into the trap of idealistic pursuit vs. practical and pragmatic progress.

Both have ignored the practical realities of power—call it influence, pull, or realpolitikThey misjudged the power of an organization’s culture to reject even the best ideas in favor of the status quo. They let the organization and its culture crush a valuable addition to its midst.

Don’t kid yourself: Culture is heavy. The weight of any organization’s culture will crush any change agent.

So what?

There’s no such thing as a “fire and forget” change agent. The agent—whether in the form of an initiative team or a seemingly heroic individual like our anecdotal new hire above—must have real power.

In any change program or worthwhile process, there comes a point in the organization’s journey where the broad population realizes that change is hard. They have an “Oh, shit” moment. At that moment, there must be enough momentum and felt need (or other sources of power) to move the change forward. Otherwise, change won’t happen.

In turnarounds, the momentum and felt need is easy. Either we perform or we’re gone. The change agent can drive change with that implication alone.

In improvement situations, the reality is far more nuanced. Going from good to better is hard. Really. How often do you see people who are in great shape make a New Year’s resolution to get in better shape? Not often. They make choices that diversify their focus vs. intensifying it. They want to spend more time with their kids, take up art, or shoot for that promotion at work. Their health is secondary because, well, they already have health.

That’s the problem with change in organizations performing “OK” or, especially, performing great but in an unhealthy manner (a diversified business with a few bright spots that carry the portfolio comes to mind). The organization—convinced it’s “doing alright”—sees the change as an annoyance. This is especially true in the absence of a transparent agenda. And that’s where power comes in.

Executive sponsors and change agents have to agree on the source of power that will ensure the change. And they must follow through on it!

The agenda must be explicit and have teeth. The change agent has to be able to walk into any room with the full blessing of power, and with a ready set of implications for non-participants and opt-outs. But the change agent should never have to articulate them!

For the other leaders in the organization, opting out must be a visible, deliberate action that is advertised to the highest levels of sponsorship. Opting out has to have consequences. Or else, why bother?

Practical points

Cognitive dissonance being what it is, human beings aren’t wired to admit that they individually are the problem. Chances are, you read the anecdote at the beginning of this article with a real notion of who the victim was, and the victim probably looked a lot like you. The reality is that all parties in the anecdote hold responsibility. So, here are some things to do about it:

  • Sponsoring executives have to stay engaged and deliver their positional and personal influence through their change agents. Tell the organization that the agent has power and why. Never, ever leave that communication to the change agent. Define—honestly—the agenda the agent is working to implement. And, for goodness’ sake, don’t undermine the change agent by entertaining back-channel grievances and allowing one-off deviations from the plan without explicit, advertised, and good reasons. Sponsor the right behaviors through influence or force.
  • Change agents need to clarify the source of their power. Can they state in a short sentence what would keep the organization from opting out? Are the power dynamics such that the change agent is set up to fail? Remember: Idealism is great, but not sufficient. Just going and doing a good job is not enough if the power structure isn’t in place.
  • Group or organizational leaders have to own and explain their priorities. To be sure, there are myriad good reasons—ranging from timing to talent—for opting out of change initiatives. Handled transparently, these reasons can be managed well. If handled passively or through backroom deals, however, opting out sends a signal to the rest of the organization (that doesn’t have such good reasons for it) that opting out will be tolerated and accepted. So, why bother?

If you deploy change agents, be sure to back them with enough power to make them effective. Practice sponsorship, not spectatorship. Define your agenda. Lead. Clear the way.

If you’re a change agent, be sure you have enough power through sponsorship to achieve what the organization expects you to achieve. If you don’t have it, get it. Can’t get it? Move on.

What do you think?

Be who you are, especially in business

Strategy must solve for the core before testing boundaries.

Geoff Wilson

Remember when Michael Jordan left basketball to be a professional baseball player? The topic was covered by an ESPN “30 for 30” documentary, “Jordan Rides the Bus“. It wasn’t a total disaster, but it does make you cringe to think about. The greatest basketball player of all time took significant time off from his main sport to play baseball. Jordan was basketball. Basketball was Jordan.

Google, a company that is fantastically sound in its core business of search-targeted advertising, has spent millions (perhaps billions) looking for the next big thing. Nevertheless, a huge portion of Google’s revenue and profit comes from its AdWords platform. AdWords is what Google “is.”

While my home state’s Birmingham Barons loved the spectacle that Jordan offered them by testing the baseball waters, and though Google has doubtless made many millionaires by dipping its toes into new venture areas, both of these anecdotes offer lessons for those of us who focus on strategy. Strategy, in so many ways, is about being who you are, first—then testing the boundaries.

I have the pleasure of serving many companies on strategic issues. I’ve now consulted with well over 50 companies at the top management level. Without a doubt, the biggest strategic blunder management teams commit is chasing shiny new things at the cost of their core business.

Loss of focus on the core is the critical risk for a business in transition. Companies have core assets. Those may be people, machinery, locations, patents, or products. A strategy that ignores the core is likely to fail.

Why? It comes down to risk. Let’s use Jordan as an example. When he played basketball in the 1992 Olympics for the United States’ famed “Dream Team,” he had to adapt to a new style of play. There were different rules, a differently shaped key on the court, and the 3-point line was at a different distance. He even had to watch out for being called for traveling, which is rarely enforced in the NBA. But it was the same ball. It was the same dribble, drive, shoot he’d mastered for years as a pro, and he was successful while the Dream Team dominated its way to a gold medal.

What about Jordan’s foray into baseball? Well, that was a different story. Baseball was, literally, a whole new ballgame. Different ball, different skill set, different rules, and different player mentality. It was a whole new world. Jordan hit for just a .200 average in the minor leagues. The whole scenario basically proved he was a fairly flexible athlete, but a very average baseball player.

See the issue? New ball, new rules, new skills, new mindset? Jordan tried to enter a change of pace that had too many degrees of uncertainty. Companies do this all the time. They seek to enter arenas with new technologies, new customers, new channels, or all three—and they commit resources that should probably be focused on their core businesses.

Combining the risky trifecta of new customers, technologies, and routes to market with your existing skills is a recipe for disaster. Doing it at the expense of your core business is just plain obtuse.

I once served a diversified firm whose explicit, vociferous strategic focus was on new product development within a very narrow set of businesses, but whose bread and butter was really in driving cost reduction within a vast core business that wasn’t pursuing a cost-leadership strategy. You get that? To be clear: Driving cost reduction as the key strategic move while not pursuing a cost-leadership strategy is, in itself, a strategic blunder.

Though this company’s new product-development areas were promising, they were also extremely long cycle. And they ate a tremendous amount of resources (as those things sometimes can). Still, management treated the core business as if it were on autopilot while suckling away at the cost-reduction teat without a discernible cost-leadership end point.

The issue with this is that strategies have to be focused against end games, and this particular company had a vast core whose strategic end game left the company itself out of the mix. It would not be a cost leader in its market, but was depending on cost reduction to ensure its financial performance. Meanwhile, new initiatives focused on new technologies, customers, and channels—not to mention new skills—were front and center, resourced heavily but not exclusively, and extremely long cycle to maturity.

The end result of such a quasi-strategic scheme is predictable: a stumbling core and an immature periphery. Why? Because the core business in such a scenario has such mass that a trip up in the core overwhelms any “big” wins in the new, new thing. The core would eventually trip, and the periphery would not be significant enough to save it. It’s the industrial equivalent of the savings and loan crisis: savings and loan institutions borrowed from depositors’ short-term funds and lent long term, automatically setting up a liquidity crisis somewhere down the line.

You have to focus on the core, no matter how ugly it is. The core is your short and intermediate term. You have to be who you are.

The lesson is this: Your core has to have a strategy, and that strategy must reflect who you are in terms of strengths, skills, and competences. You can (nay, must) look for the new, new thing—but you must do it with a core strategy that is effective, extensive, and sound.

Now, none of this matters if you are fat and happy. If you’re a multi-millionaire athlete who has millions upon millions of dollars in endorsements (like Jordan did), or if you’re a high-margin juggernaut like Google (excuse me, Alphabet, Inc.), you can afford to emabark on a diversion that is totally against your strengths.

But if you’re like most of the world, you have strengths, and you only have a finite amount of time to exploit them. You also have a finite amount of time and resources to commit outside your strengths. Be careful with those.

Be sure to form a strategy for who you are first, and then keep a little margin to test who you might be. It can be a liberating thing.

What do you think?

Don’t be friends with the monster

Honoring functional leadership above all else creates monsters in today’s over-scienced organizations.

“I’m friends with the monster that’s under my bed”

— Rihanna on “The Monster” by Eminem

Geoff Wilson

Let’s say you’re a leader of a corporate function. Pick one, it doesn’t matter. You may lead supply chain, procurement, human resources, information technology, corporate development, strategy, finance, accounting, or any other.

If I told you, right now, to find me a treasure trove of best practices for your function, you could do so in an instant. Starting with the old standby, Harvard Business Review, you could extend and expand your Google hunt to a dizzying plethora of functional associations, business school publications, case studies, consulting publications, and puff pieces that would provide you with more best practices than you could ever digest. Ever.

And that’s the kicker. Functional leaders now have access to more best practices than ever before, and that abundance has the potential to create a monster. How? In our pursuit of functional excellence within organizations, it’s easy to lose collective sight of business excellence. That’s right. Compliance with functional mandates can have monstrous consequences for business performance and productivity.

Consider an organization with a well-meaning leadership team that empowers several functions to demand compliance from line leaders on their own functional initiatives—all at once. To functional leaders, this is nirvana. They get to install “world-class HR approaches,” or “sector-leading procurement approaches,” or “outstanding business planning,” or “structured strategic planning.” But to the line leader, such initiatives manifest themselves as barbarians at the gate. They are monstrous.

Why? Consider the line leader who suddenly has to spend hours in meetings with functional teams. For some leaders, a specific functional team will hit the spot. The meeting or new approach will be extremely valuable. For others—say, a leader without real talent gaps, who is forced to sit through days of talent reviews and plans—they’re a waste of time. But they’re mandatory. They are “the way we do things now.” And they are, quite often, entirely wrong.

They sap productive selling and organizational-development time from line leaders who usually know they are wasting time. In the worst cases (“Hey, Bob, just fill out these talent templates and we’ll see you next Tuesday.”) they simultaneously kill morale and productivity while adding no value.

How do you avoid creating a functional monster in your organization?

The answer is hard because all the management scientists and consultants peddling best practices will find holes throughout an organization that adheres to it. But it’s simple: Have the guts to empower line managers, provide them with great tools, and get out of their way.

Let there be a rational discussion and rule set for allowing business leaders to spend time with customers vs. internal functional teams. Set the menu of initiatives and manage opting out closely, but allow it. Allow the gal whose business team has no credit-and-collections issues to skip the “best-practice contracting” seminar. Allow the guy whose team has high productivity and zero turnover to avoid the talent and recruiting review.

It’s OK. Really. And I say this as someone who has perpetrated plenty of broad-based, high-value corporate initiatives. Outside of obvious risk and legal areas, “compliance” to one-size-fits-all approaches to functional “excellence” results in a distribution of gains from that excellence that very clearly hurts some players who comply.

This isn’t to say that no functional initiative is applicable to all, but rather that you should know whether or not it is.

Don’t be friends with the monster. Don’t allow honor and appreciation for good functional practices to kill productivity and morale in your line organization. Know when to let your business leaders opt out of frightful functional initiatives.

What do you think? 

Everybody wants to be a rock star

You gotta love the process to be great, in management or any field.

Geoff Wilson

You know something funny? Pretty much everybody wants to be a rock star. No, I don’t literally mean a rock-‘n’-roll celebrity with long hair, tattoos, piercings, and leather pants. I mean a figurative rock star nailing every performance at whatever they do.

But you know something else? Very few people want—no, like—to do what it takes to get there. And therein lies the rub of achieving success in just about any field. It can be boiled down to a single phrase: You have to love the process of achieving greatness to have the best chance of becoming great.

That means that no matter how much you’d love to be Eddie Van Halen on the guitar, if you don’t love or at least appreciate the pain of cracked and bleeding fingers that comes from countless hours of practicing new licks, you probably won’t get there. Ever.

Show me someone great at something, anything, and I’ll show you someone who has honed their craft through the process of becoming great. The process is typically exhausting, frustrating, painful, and tedious. If it weren’t, everyone would doggedly pursue greatness rather than passively wish for it.

Great speaker? Many hours of practice—probably in their closet or in front of the mirror, but still. Great strategist? Yep, lots of practice—possibly by observing a magnificent depth of strategic patterns and behaviors. Great mechanic? Plenty of practice, as well as burns, cuts, and sore muscles. Great typist? Lots. Of. Tedious. Typing.

Sure, the great ones are often gifted. But, most of the time, they love the process, too. They love the bloody fingers, skinned knuckles, and late nights in front of a spreadsheet. They crave the smell of engine exhaust or sweaty locker rooms.

These people relish the act of building greatness. They may love it even more than being great.

One cautionary note: I’m not talking about someone who has a great position. That’s totally different. There are people with great titles and positions, and then there are great professionals. They aren’t always the same. After enough years, you start to realize that.

So, you want to be a rock star? Find a stage where you enjoy the process of building toward greatness. If you never liked practice, you were probably in the wrong field. The great ones love the grind.

What do you think?


Why your people need to mesh for your business to move

Identifying ideal mesh points within your organization is vital to strategic execution.

Geoff Wilson

Your organization is the gearbox of your strategy. It’s the structure through which the energy of people and ideas gets channeled toward the strategic intent of the company’s leadership team. An effective organization structure is priceless. It fosters contact and collaboration among people who are best positioned to capture opportunity and manage risk en route to delivering the company’s mission.

But if the organization is the gearbox, a leader’s ability to fine tune the meshing of the gears within the box becomes a key determinant of whether strategy can be executed at all. Perhaps your strategy calls for an operation to be migrated from one geography to another—maybe to capture a cost advantage or to better serve a customer.

Such a move typically requires many disparate parts of a company to mesh with one another in ways that aren’t always natural.

How so? Imagine that the operation’s leaders are focused on delivering on cost and inventory performance at the start and end of the move. Then, imagine that the very act of moving will naturally impact production costs (as one facility is ramped down and another is ramped up) and inventory levels (as inventory is built up on one side for the move, and built on the other to achieve future service levels).

What is likely to happen if the operational leaders aren’t appropriately meshed with strategic and financial leaders to reset goals and expectations? Chaos, that’s what. Customer service suffers, transitions from the one location to another take twice as long (as cost levels are over-managed), and nearly everyone wonders why this was so darn hard.

It’s necessary during times of strategic change to over-invest in organizational mesh points that ensure ideas and energy are correctly driven. These can often be artificial and temporary—program management offices provide this function for large-change programs. But sometimes, strategic organization mesh points simply need to be matters of daily business. The emergence of sales and operational-planning processes and meetings the world over reflects the value of strategic mesh points in organizations.

Maybe you have a strategy that requires an unnatural coordination across your sales and product development teams. Perhaps your strategy requires your supply chain to interact differently with your marketing team. It’s important to know this.

Be sure to consider where your organization needs to mesh in order to achieve the change you’re seeking.

What do you think?

Doing hard things means good things for business

Managing core tasks is important but expected. Greatness lies in facing true challenge.

Geoff Wilson

We spend ample time in strategic discussions talking about challenges and how to overcome them. Challenges exist within the market, organization, product development, sales, and myriad other business strategy topics. The conversation then turns to incentives, and it all gets muddled.

Things get murky because we often confuse the incentive to overcome a challenge with the incentive to “look like you’re doing something.” And that’s where this conversation gets very personal.

I know people who have worked their entire lives on straight salary (or even hourly wages) who will risk their jobs in the name of doing the right thing or simply taking on a new challenge. That is hard.

I’ve also known individuals who have had tremendous financial incentives—amounting to multiples of their salaries—whose go-to moves were delaying and deferring decisions for the sake of prolonging their reign. That is easy. The difficulty lies in knowing both which person you are (a) led by and (b) modeling yourself after.

Most who know me know that I detest using chess as a metaphor for strategy. The game is too constrained. All the moves are mapped out. The board is obvious. Chess is tactics, not strategy, as I’ve previously written. However, the world of chess holds many valuable tools and ideas for strategy. One of those is the Elo rating system.

The Elo rating system was devised years ago to help predict player strength without requiring every player to play a series of matches against one another. The key to the Elo rating system is how strength points are traded. When a strongly rated player beats a weak player, the strong player gains minimal points, and the weak player loses minimal points. But when a weak player beats a strong player, the strong player loses many points while the weak player gains many. Accomplishment in the face of difficulty is highly rewarded, whereas flubbing the easy stuff is mightily punished.

This is your career in a nutshell. People are (or eventually will be) looking at the challenges you face and your relative performance on them. If you’re great at accomplishing things that should be easy for you, that’s fine and good. Now stop patting yourself on the back and find your next true challenge.

Few things are less compelling than a person who talks about their great work on low-difficulty endeavors. If you want to be great, do hard things well. This is true for yourself as an individual, and it is true for your business.

If you lead a business in a sector where table stakes include on-time product delivery, you deserve minimal credit for achieving on-time delivery—it’s merely expected of you and your business. Don’t bother to tout your “great” performance. Go find a way to deliver on time and redesign the product for future customer needs. You are fighting last year’s war. Move on to the next one.

If you’re a five-year professional who does a magnificent job of keeping a filing system in order, you (again) deserve little credit for getting it right. That’s expected of an experienced person. Find a more compelling challenge to solve.

As I noted in my example of executives seeking to extend their reigns, the chess world has struggled with the trend of highly rated players avoiding competitive play in order to protect their ratings. According to the previously linked Wikipedia entry, “…the rating system can discourage game activity for players who wish to protect their rating…”.

Knowing this, you want your reputation and rating to be fresh, so you have to think about your “masterful” self or organizational performance as having a rating that is in constant deflation since the last time you set the bar. And you have to evaluate your people in the same way. “Emeritus” is a title that should be awarded with grudging irregularity in today’s business world.

But here’s the real key to all of this: Be sure you don’t flub the easy stuff while you’re seeking that next big challenge. You must do both. Losing on product-delivery performance while you’re transforming your company is a classic “executive” example. Failing at basic time management while trying to do a bigger job is a classic “individual” example. They’re the kinds of things that get people fired.

Keep in mind, the more experienced you are—the higher your Elo rating—the less points you gain for doing things that inexperienced people do, too.

You want good things? Do hard things.

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? 


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.




Come On, Feel the Noise!

You need a little noise with your signal to spice up your life.


Do you use services that depend on your prior “likes” and “dislikes” to serve up suggestions to you? You know, like Amazon, Pandora, or other eerily perceptive services that depend on your input to provide you with tailored experiences?

Do you think that those services depend on serving up only what you want, and not a few things that you might want?

Of course they don’t.  They may know you like Bruce Springsteen, but occasionally throw in a little bit of Bob Dylan.  Why?

Just to see.

Just to see what *might* be the boundaries of your likes and dislikes.  And, besides, if they only served up a steady helping of exactly what you likethen your life would get more and more limited, and more and more boring, to boot.

And, there is a lesson in that.

In order to find the edges of our capabilities, we have to step outside of our comfort zones.  We have to create tests of our boundaries.

We have to, in short, introduce noise into the system.

Now, all my highly structured, management guru, six sigma worshiping friends are saying NYET!  Variability is a bad thing.  I want what I want, when I want it.

Well, sure you do, but how do you know you are getting what you really want?

There is a “thing” in the physical world known as “Stochastic Resonance” or SR, for short.  SR is a phenomenon whereby the introduction of noise to a system actually amplifies the ability to see the signal.  The signal stands out more because of the noise, not without it.  Just like when we use Amazon’s suggestions, we can find what we really like by virtue of introducing a steady stream of things that we might not clearly like.

The signal gets clearer.

And, while I’m leaning on examples that have to do with consumer marketing, this type of thinking has applicability to strategists everywhere.  We in business have been brought up in systems that point to noise as a bad thing.  People who don’t do exactly what they are told are bad employees.  Financial performance that is noisy is bad financial performance.  Manufacturing processes that have variability are bad processes.

These are concepts that are near and dear to the hearts of management scientists everywhere.

Minimize uncertainty.

Create systems that minimize thought and choice.

Plan the economy.

Only, a strange thing happens on the way to technocratic nirvana…we scare out the entrepreneurship.  We scare out the little variances that create or illuminate opportunity.  We–in full thrall of the arrogance that we can create systems that know all–remove the ability for a little bit of idiosyncrasy to add to our lives.

So, what does this really mean?  Well, let me offer a few ideas.

  • For teams you lead…introduce new perspectives.  You have a team of engineers?  Bring an artist to a meeting.  You have a team of bankers?  Bring an operations guy to the room every now and then.
  • For you as an individual…Try something new.  You like playing golf? Try poker.  You like finance?  Spend a few weeks working on a marketing project.
  • For your organizations…find it within yourself to encourage a few more experiments.  Give your organization some leash and see what it can create.  Sponsor people.
  • For your organizations’ external relationships…find a way to create more of them.  Test partnerships.  Date more.

With a little bit of noise, you might be able to more clearly discern opportunity.