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?

Dear Younger Me

10 pieces of advice I would give to my twenty-something self


After recently depositing my youngest at college, it got me thinking about myself back then. I was painfully shy, insecure and still trying to find my identity. The same was true when I entered the work place and, in spite of apparently performing well, I was riddled with anxiety. Over the years, I eventually found my footing but I can’t help wondering how many years I shaved off my life with needless worry. If only I knew then what I know now.
So, if like the Little Debbie ad, I could back and talk to my younger self, here are the 10 pieces of advice I would give…
1. A problem shared is a problem halved – Don’t shoulder the burden yourself, especially if the issue is out of your control. Talk to your manager, but come armed with some potential solutions too.

2. Conflict now is better than a tsunami later – Addressing the issue may seem daunting, but not addressing it will probably come back and bite you in the butt at some point. And if nothing else, you will sleep better afterward.

3. Check once, check twice, check thrice –  Adopt the discipline of checking documents first for comprehension, second for logic/flow and third for typos/grammar.

4. Feedback is a gift –  It may not feel like it, but feedback is important in helping you to grow. Ask for it, receive it and provide it.

5. Don’t compare yourself to others – We are all different and you were hired for your unique skills. By all means, observe others and adopt what you like, but obsessive comparisons drive feelings of inadequacy.

6. Silence can be golden – Listen to what is being said and process it instead of worrying about not speaking. That way, you will learn and be able to contribute to the discussion.

7. Don’t assume everyone knows what they are talking about – Confidence does not always equate with competence. If something smells wrong, trust your instinct and push back.

8. No pain, no gain – Push yourself to stretch beyond your comfort zone. That’s how you grow. Except when it comes to roller blading in your forties. Don’t do that. There will be much pain.

9. Seek out mentors –  They have made mistakes that you have yet to make. Actively foster relationships with people you admire. They will become lifelong friends.

10. Don’t worry, be happy –  Worrying never solved a problem. One day, someone will tell you to write down your worries on a piece of paper and put them in a box. After a month, you will open the box and find that most of them have miraculously disappeared.

This will change your life…

What about you. What would you tell your younger self?

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!


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?

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

What Poor Days Teach Us

Our poorest days help us appreciate our best ones.


Last weekend, I had the opportunity to watch my mother cook a large pot of soup for my kids and me while my wife was out of town visiting friends. Always the creative cook, my mother essentially concocted a vegetable soup out of a motley assortment of aging-but-good vegetables, leftovers, and other ingredients scavenged from our pantry and refrigerator.

It was excellent.  It was creative. The kids even liked it.

But, something she said to me while cooking it struck a nerve for me.  

As she combined ingredients that I suspect I and many of my contemporaries would not have envisioned as fitting together (the soup included approximately 5 different kinds of beans, but wasn’t a bean soup, folks…) she looked up at me and said:

“You only appreciate this kind of soup after living through some poor days.”

While we both chuckled at the comment, it had the weight of reality.  I won’t go into gory detail, but will say that the poor days referenced were real, and that yes, they do make you appreciate even the little creative things in life.

And, I think there’s a lesson in that for all of us.

We all have poor days.  Yours might not be financially poor days, but they might be emotionally poor, spiritually poor, or poor in other ways.  Maybe bad weather is as poor as you have ever experienced, but you’ve still experienced it.

In our professional lives, we have days where people let us down.

Days where customers call in angry.

Days where our boss or our board doesn’t get it.

Days where people are hurt on the job on our watch.

Days where we have to fire people, or we get fired.

Days where sales aren’t where they need to be, and neither are margins.

Days where it’s time to shut the whole operation down…and we do.

In other words, we live through poor days…All of us. Still, the poor days can lend rich experience.  They can enhance your sense of goodness, and your sense of performance.

When I sit and think about the best days I’ve had as a professional, I know for a fact that they were the best days because I went through some bad days to get there.

Just as I wouldn’t appreciate the taste of my mother’s soup if I didn’t understand the creativity–borne out of a few episodes of deep necessity–that brought it to life, we all have to use our poor days to improve our ability to perceive our best days.

 I don’t (and won’t) go so far as to say poor days are a blessing.  I will say that the experience and perspective poor days provide very much is.

Now, it’s your turn… If you’ve made it this far, take a moment to leave your mark here by leaving a comment.  What do you think? 

How Rogue Can Work For You

Sometimes, independence is the best policy.


Allow me to indulge in a little bit of personal storytelling to make what may be a useful point.

22 and a half years ago, I made a commitment to leave a small town in lower Alabama to head to college at Stanford University. In that day, before the internet, I had barely known what “Stanford” was when the football recruiter first came calling; I literally asked him where it was on the map. As a somewhat highly rated football recruit with a modest national profile, I was known to Stanford more than Stanford was to me. When I made that commitment, a little-known fact is that I received hate mail from my South-loving neighbors…some of it mailed anonymously, some of it sounded off in newspaper columns. My favorite was a column in the Birmingham news that ended with “somebody said go west, young man, and Geoff Wilson did.” It was a tough decision. It’s one that I still to this day don’t fully grasp how my 17-year-old self made. The easy choices were right there (Alabama! Auburn! LSU! Florida State! Tennessee!).

I went for the “total package” that was Stanford–academics, athletics, weather, diversity of thought, and, above all, teammates who seemed to be interested in being more than only ground-pounding hunks of meat. Very, very few people understood my choice. My high school football coach, after hearing (from me) that I had committed to Stanford, simply responded with “I figured that…”


20 years ago, I had a life-changing experience on the football field. I had one leg collapsed and twisted in one of those awkward ways that leads to reconstructive surgery and contemplation of one’s future athletic life. It didn’t put me off the field permanently–I missed a season and then was a starting tackle in college for a couple more years followed by a sip of coffee with an NFL club after “recovering.” But, it did blow my confidence in some ways and either physically or mentally cost me a step or two. Physically or mentally…which one, I’ll never know, but it was just enough.

14 years ago, I watched my maternal grandmother take her last breath. A sharp, spitfire (she would say “shit-fire”) of a woman, she ended her life unsure of her surroundings and probably glad of it–I doubt she would have liked the nursing home. She had rescued my immediate family and multiple other wanderers from crisis, she always had a pot of something cooking on the stove (just in case somebody dropped by), and she would not hesitate to, ahem, tan a hide or two. Watching her take a final few gasps was formative.

5 years ago, I went through a rending and private self-evaluation and made a choice to leave a prestigious and altogether fantastic global professional services firm (that I still like and respect today) while on the cusp of partnership. I can still hear the “no, no, no” admonition of a firm partner and friend when I said I’d made that choice.  I was in search of more than I thought that firm could offer in terms of long-term stability, so I went corporate.

3 years ago, I lent moral and physical support as I witnessed a very close 40-something family friend lie on a hospital bed in my mother’s living room slowly choking to death during a brief and brutal fight with lung cancer.

2 years ago, it all came to a head in two ways, almost mystically but doubtless coincidentally.  First, I faced a choice of staying corporate and doing, as far too many corporate types do, what I was told to do because it would mean more money. This choice came to me in such a way that my own purposefully transparent values and aspirations were challenged in multiple ways.

Second, during the somewhat agonizing deliberation over how to consider that choice, I had the experience of being the first good Samaritan on the scene of an awful one-car rollover crash on an interstate highway in Alabama.  The driver, with his young son and their cat in the car, had gone into diabetic shock and run off the road at 70 miles per hour.  As my wife and I saw the dust cloud ahead of us and saw the small SUV rolling multiple times, she called 911 while I shouldered our car and sprinted (as it were) to the scene.  The boy and cat were fine–the driver was not.  As the only person on scene, I was magnificently ineffective.  I clawed and wrestled to open the driver-side door of the upside down SUV only to find…finality.

It put my personal dilemma about “corporate or not” into stark relief at a time when such contrast was probably best needed. I faced the choice of either doing–in the misguided words of another colleague “whatever it took” to be a good corporate player or, in the words of a senior executive I worked with intensely for years, “going rogue.”

I chose rogue.

I think without the formative experiences of a few broken dreams (dammit, I was going to play in the NFL for a long time) and witnessing a few times how we all end with broken bodies (thank you, Chuck, for admitting that the best part was “knowing how you would go.”), I couldn’t have done it.

I think that anyone reading this has areas of life where rogue is right. It might be in work, health, or family, but choosing to go against convention can be exceptionally agonizing but altogether rewarding.  Why?

First of all, there is a binding pressure on so many of us not to be creative.  Wait, what?  Yes. The pressure to be as uncreative as possible–to be proles in somebody else’s totalitarian society–exists.  That can come at work, but I’d argue it also comes in civic society–churches, service organizations, and government.  When you are presented with choices and asked not to think them through–especially when you are scorned for thinking them through–you are facing this sort of pressure.

Conventional thinking comes from doing what you are told, not what is thoughtfully considered.

Second of all, there is a subtle but extremely strong force that holds us in thrall with the herd.  It’s known as “risk.” We view departing the herd and thinking on our own as risky. In fact, many corporate, civic, and church cultures are founded on the notion that people must be trained to feel worthless if they are disconnected from the whole. But it’s just not true–some of the most world-changing observations and decisions have been made by people who ignored the risk of solitude and actually did things.  Do you think Martin Luther ran his ideas by the hierarchy?

I’ll riff for a minute on this second one, because it is an area in which the world has actually changed for the better over the past 10 years or so.  In decades past, individuals attached themselves to firms for the promise of stability. The social contract was that people who did reasonable work didn’t get fired; they were part of the firm.

That all changed during the rise of corporate restructuring and overwhelming (but in many cases necessary) focus on shareholder value.  The baby boomer generation (my parents) walked right into the maw of this reality during the ’80s.  Lifetime employment was no longer real. Defined benefits were gone.  The social contract had changed.

But people’s behaviors did not.  They still joined companies with the thought that the company was entering into a contract with them…to the extent that they would eliminate their own professional voices and outside-the-firm career development options in favor of being “all-in.” I’d argue that such was the case until about 5 – 10 years ago.  The younger generation has gotten wise to it, although not entirely.  The world has changed.  Nowadays, it’s easy to source and sell talent on the open market, and firms play less of a role in the matter.

For young professionals, this means that “what’s in it for me” amounts more to the immediate experience and pace a role in an organization offers vs. merely a “job.”

For talented professionals with a longer and strong track record, this means that the only reason to sign one’s life away to a corporation is that that corporation has committed to an explicit contract with that individual (I’m talking ink and paper–verbal contracts are basically meaningless even when you have recorded the conversation, trust me).  The only other reason I can think of is if the talented professional owns equity in the corporation.

So firms like yours and mine are left with three basic value propositions for the people they employ:  Professional development for younger people to increase their employability within your firm or somebody else’s, ownership of your firm so that they can enjoy the longer term fruits of their labor, or a contract that offers some risk sharing.  That’s what we can offer to today’s “roguish” workforce.

That’s it: Professional development, ownership, or a contract.

But that brings you to the realization that for seasoned, talented people, an employment contract without equity is essentially a consulting contract. So, then what?  Well, the short answer is that in today’s economy, unless you’re an owner or are receiving an out-sized investment in your own professional development, you’re a consultant anyway.

Might as well admit it.

That is the biggest change in the past decade: Senior talent can finally find its own level outside of the politics and impracticalities of a firm structure, and younger talent clamors for more professional development sooner than ever.  It’s the truth. And, the only people I know who lament “their people’s” newfound ability to go get a better deal are people who think that people they employ are “theirs” in the first place.

I’ll offer a couple of implications.  You might already see through my story above and say it’s totally anecdotal. To that, I say guilty.  But still…

For the individual: This article is a long way of saying that life is short.  We all end up the same way…broken.  Once we (that’s you) have invested the time and effort necessary to build an exemplary track record, we might as well have the self-respect to exercise our freedom to choose.  Choose where and with whom we spend our time and efforts, and how we are compensated for the risk we take.  Let’s choose, at least occasionally, to be creative.

For the corporate manager:  It’s important to realize that in today’s environment, exceptionally talented individuals are going to look for ownership or a contract that looks a lot like it.  As a corporate leader, be sure to investigate the benefits that the new epoch of highly talented free agents brings to you and your organization.  Oh, and because you do employ people (just as I do), remember that the contract is different now…  people are looking for an employment value proposition today and not simply a career.  Almost no organization can credibly offer a career anymore, so you might as well offer a value proposition that extends employees’ capabilities immediately vs. promising something in the future that may or may not happen. So, go beyond hire and fire. Consider sourcing talent in a more flexible model.

No matter where you stand, rogue can work for you.


What Makes a Great Company?

Enduring companies share some common traits.  How’s yours doing?


When do companies become great? When do they become bigger than the person who leads them, bigger than their stated purpose or their value to their customers?

When do organizations become enduring?

It’s a question I ponder quite a bit. After all, our firm, WGP, is explicitly focused on “enduring” performance for our clients, and that sounds all well and good, but how does it happen?

Enduring organizations come in many shapes and sizes, but the truly enduring organizations I have been around or have been a part of have a few things in common. I think endurance comes from a number of things, so my list is incomplete, but it has to be.

The first aspect is vision. Proverbs 29:18 says “Where there is no vision, the people perish…”  Think about that for a second: Thousands of years ago, a lack of vision was attached squarely to death. The same is true in modern institutions: when there is no binding vision, fragmentation occurs; people find their own vision, and institutions suffer. Vision is about a state of arrival, except you may never arrive.

The second aspect is an overt lack of self-centered leadership. These leaders are harder to find these days, but it’s not impossible.  By lack of self-centeredness, I do not mean lack of self-interest; I don’t know that a leader who is not truly self-interested can thrive in modern institutions; a commercial mindset depends on an understanding of value and trade, which involves self-interest at some level.

What I mean by self-centeredness, or rather, the lack of it, is that there’s a stage when really effective leaders realize they have “enough” power, influence, money, or responsibility, and they become sharers: They are no longer focused only on their individual goals.

An iconic story on this note for me came from the primary builder of McKinsey & Company, Marvin Bower. I never met Marvin, but I came into McKinsey when people still knew him. The story is that when Marvin Bower turned 60, he sold the shares he owned–a substantial number–back to the firm at book value.  He could have easily sold his shares for market value, but that would have forced the firm into debt.  This truly massive gesture was one of a leader who had moved on from self-centered to merely self-interested; he worried about self-centeredness and what it could do to the firm he built. In his words to that firm:

“Have we begun to think too
much about money because
we’ve got so much coming in?”
he asked. “People who make a
lot of money get to thinking
about having four homes to keep
up, or maybe they want a yacht.
If an individual consultant has
to make a professional decision
on the spot and he has too many
obligations, I worry that he is
likely to make a decision to attract
a client who shouldn’t be

Check the last few words there:  Marvin Bower worried that self-centeredness could allow a consultant to attract a client who shouldn’t be attracted.  Money is a powerful motivator, but it isn’t the only healthy focus of a business. When seeking to build, find leaders who are primed to maintain a healthy self-interest, not those that are self-centered.

The third aspect is a healthy engine for developing leaders who think critically. It is fantastically hard for institutions that have grown as personality cults or follower farms to endure. Why? Because they create workforces that are devoid, nay, avoidant of critical thinkers. And, they create “leaders” who learn to spend their time in court politics and scapegoating versus actually solving problems and capturing opportunities.

One large company I had the privilege to get to know well was built by an iconic and temperamental leader. Everyone deferred to him on every detail. The rub?  He wanted to have great leaders around him; he actually wanted the engine to develop leaders, so he invested in human resources and performance management nirvana. But he wasn’t comfortable with his people thinking on their own, so he was unable to get out of his own way. This chairman, CEO, and absolute monarch built a company that was exceptional and generally well-respected but that struggled to develop leaders under his reign.

Ironically, the business itself had exceptional leadership disciples. People were motivated, smart, and able, but they just didn’t take much initiative in true leadership instances because that was the head guy’s job.  The company, a multi-billion dollar firm in the construction services industry, was filled with leadership ability and completely devoid of leaders, which happens if you have no engine for developing leaders who think and act critically.

The fourth aspect is a deep sense of “who we are.”  The greatness of a company is backed by a culture of alignment around greatness and by great defenders of the faith in that culture. Southwest Airlines has this culture: Everyone in the company knows that quality of customer service, on-time performance, and other aspects of great are expected of them every day.

But what gets missed is that Southwest had amazingly effective spiritual leaders in Herb Kelleher and Colleen Barrett for many years. Never lacking in willingness to tell others what she thought, Colleen would very explicitly ensure that the boundaries of Southwest’s culture were clear and attended to; she defended the faith for years and years.  Enduring companies tend to have people like this–people who, without demeaning others or making it a big deal, rule with an iron fist on culture, values, and boundaries.

The fifth aspect of endurance is a healthy focus on performance. Enduring organizations understand what feeds them, and they reward it well. Yes, they even do this in the short term, and they do it well.  For instance, aggressiveness in meeting short-term financial goals can be purposeful, for, e.g., freeing enough cash to invest in new projects or to restructure to ensure new capabilities or meet new markets. Enduring organizations have strategic rationales for short-term performance that, once thresholds for survival and fair returns are met, go to more than simply meeting metrics on a scoreboard.

Which brings up a sixth and final musing on what makes enduring organizations enduring. For this, I use an old Greek proverb:

Society grows great when old men plant trees whose shade they will never see.

That is to say, great institutions become great when the oldest among the population act on behalf of people who they may never meet. They place investments that pay off over decades; they take a flyer here and there. Honda has its first corporate jet in the market today: It was marketed first in 2015, but the project started in the 1980s!  What kind of journey must that have been?

Separately, I had the privilege of working at a private manufacturing firm, Milliken & Company, for a while. Milliken’s corporate headquarters is situated in the midst of a beautiful arboretum, which serves as a very cool metaphor for endurance. Over the course of decades, the company’s iconic leader, Roger Milliken, played out his passion of planting trees: He planted trees whose shade he knew he would never enjoy. Such “noble” trees are a fantastic metaphor for building an enduring company.

Enduring organizations have such planters in their midst, and that’s likely what makes them great.  If you’re in a company where the old men have decided to focus their endurance on merely surviving to retirement, consider what that means: If your old men only worry about getting to their own finish line, your organization’s culture and leadership have failed.

These are only reflections from my own experience. Enduring organizations arise for many reasons, and even if just one of these aspects is not enough, a few may be. One thing is sure, however: endurance is threatened when these aspects are not there.

What do you think makes the difference?

Finding the Pony in the Pile

Faced with adverse situations? Dig. 


I’ve written before on the benefits for strategists of finding strength and beauty, and you can look here for that.

But this post is a little different. This one is about finding strength from adversity. This is about the pony in the pile. If you don’t know the apocryphal story, here it is:

Once there were five-year-old twin boys,
one a pessimist and the other an optimist.
Wondering how two boys who seemed so alike could
be so different, their parents took them to a psychiatrist.

The psychiatrist took the pessimist to a room piled high
with new toys,
expecting the boy to be thrilled, but instead he burst into tears.

Puzzled, the psychiatrist asked, “Don’t you want to play with these toys?”
“Yes,” the little boy bawled,
“but if I did I’d only break them.”

Next the psychiatrist took the optimist to a room piled high with horse manure.

The boy yelped with delight, clambered to the top of the pile,

and joyfully dug out scoop after scoop,
tossing the manure into the air with glee.
“What on earth are you doing?” the psychiatrist asked.
“Well,” said the boy, beaming,

 “There’s got to be a pony in here somewhere!”


So that’s the pony in the pile in the traditional sense, but what about in your own professional life? How do you look for the pony in the piles of manure you’ve walked into?  Maybe the better question is, “Do you even look for the pony?” I can offer a few anecdotes that address my own stubborn growth on this topic.  I’ve reflected on these often.

About 12 years ago, I was an ambitious, strapping young lad who had just joined what many consider to be the most prestigious professional services firm in the world.  My second assignment as a member of this bastion of intellect and influence was to recommend elements of a massive downsizing for a struggling company.  It was not only a project that you had to swallow hard to take in the first place, it was also right in the middle of the holiday season. I have never hoped to have to say “Merry Christmas, you’re fired” to anyone as they are being laid off, but this was it. The pile of manure was tall, dark, and handsome, and to put it bluntly, I didn’t see a pony in sight.

It was, to most people involved, a distasteful project.

Then, about 9 years ago, I had the opportunity to lead a team in a gut-wrenching engagement to support the buy side of a highly complex, time-sensitive M&A transaction that involved multiple large corporations, multiple cultures, and a massive government component to boot. For all involved, it was an absolute mess of a project, and I got to sit right at the nexus. The pile of manure was standing tall once again.

These couple of instances of the “pile” and their separate trajectories through my life may be informative to you.

The first instance was dire, but it was clearly an opportunity to learn something I hadn’t learned before. Nobody was breaking ethical rules; the company was just sick and needed help. I was everything short of malcontent, and at some point, I even got there. But the work got done, I learned a ton, and to this day I believe that any young, self-righteously smart person ought to have to go through the effort of trying to turn around a dying company, even if only as an adviser. In short, here, the pony was staring me right in the face, and I only needed to look.

The second instance was exceptionally challenging. Through the hours, pressure, and politics, several people involved with the project struggled to recoup their professional lives after it was over. In that instance, I could sense that the learning experience would be a good one.  I could also sense–as the banker across the table from me fell asleep during the meeting–that the pain was shared across all parties; in other words, I didn’t have to dig too far to find the pony.  That was one of the most heartbreaking and energy-sucking projects I’ve had the opportunity to be a part of–one that I never want to relive–but the experience I gained from that roughly 10-week period of no sleep, constant travel, and absolute burnout strongly buttressed my professional outlook–although it left behind scar tissue that to this day has not gone away.

So why the serenade on heaps of manure and ponies? Really it’s because maybe somebody else can benefit from the little bit of perspective I’ve been able to accumulate.  Namely:

  • The worst experiences are often the best growth opportunities for your life, professional or otherwise.
  • Until you recognize adversity for the learning experience it is, it’s hard to look for the growth opportunity.
  • Many of us hide behind facades in order to avoid confronting the dung heap.
  • It’s better to start digging than to continue complaining.

I’ve never been accused of being an eternal optimist, but I have learned that when you’re presented with a pile of manure, dig for the pony.

How about you? You dig?

Top WGP Blog Posts of 2015

In case you missed them, these were the top posts of 2015…


Dear readers:

2015’s top posts were comfortably eclectic.  Top posts in 2015 had a good mix of behavioral, strategic, ethical, and practical leadership topics.  I thought you might enjoy a digest of the top posts along with an honorable mention list of hot posts from LinkedIn Pulse.

Though not an essential aspect of a blog targeted to managers and leaders of all stripes, your comments are always welcome; and form perhaps the best kind of feedback and “reward” I receive.

In fact… If your favorite post isn’t in the top lists, let others know what it is.

2015 has been a time of finding this blog’s voice.  I suppose that will never fully end.  Looking forward, I’m always interested in suggestions and topics for the blog.  Send them my way via

Here’s to a great 2016!



Top 10 posts on WGP in 2015


  1. In Defense of Honesty 
  2. Being Strategic Means Naming Your Elephants
  3. Good Governance Depends on Whom You Ask…
  4. When “Strategic” Cost Reduction is Really Just Whacking
  5. 90 Percent of Everything is Crap
  6. The Pornographication of Motivation and Values
  7. Why Your Entrepreneurs Leave
  8. One Habit to Create Action From Every Meeting
  9. The Pain of Virtual Leadership
  10. Coffee and a Do Not: Multi Tasking in Meetings


Honorable mention:  Top WGP posts as rated on LinkedIn Pulse in 2015


  1. #Likeagirl, evidence, and leadership
  2. New England Patriots and Uncanny Perfection
  3. Best Advice:  How to Assess Your Next Leader
  4. 8 Things Your Consultants Say About You
  5. Let’s Face It, I’m Smarter Than You