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?

Finding the Yin and Yang of Leadership Culture

All I ever needed to know about leadership culture came from two stickers on a desk 30+ years ago.

This is an article on reflection on and appreciation of the lessons one’s childhood can provide. As a parent, I’m fond of thinking about how kids see the world. As I’ve grown, I’ve realized many of the lessons I needed for later in life were right in front of me. It only took time to understand them.

First, some autobiography…

I had the great privilege to grow up around a couple of entrepreneurs.

No, let me rephrase that…

I had the great privilege to grow up around a couple of drop dead risk takers.

Few people get to do that.

That privilege came with the ups and the downs of business ownership in an era of significant change. I was immersed in both the elation of business success and the absolute devastation of bankruptcy.

My childhood included vacations in Aspen and L.A.–a real treat for a kid living on the Gulf Coast–followed by an extended stint living with relatives and years of palming a “free or reduced lunch” card to the lunch lady at my high school.

Such is life, and I’m a lot better for it.

Still, I learned about what risk is and isn’t; and about what accountability, likewise, is and isn’t.

The cool part, though, is what I learned by osmosis in those years of walking around smaller businesses and the people in them. In that environment I had free rein to explore all kinds of cool equipment, and to interact with all sorts of people.

One of the businesses was a private ambulance service, the other was a telephone answering service.

In one business, I got to play around in an old Cadillac ambulance like this one:

Yes, it was Ghostbusters style (or, for a more apt but obscure cinematic description of the operation as I remember it: Mother, Jugs & Speed).

Ours was blue.

I can still smell its interior and see the duct tape on one of the seats where the rotary-dialed radio telephone (yes, rotary) was installed.

In the other business, I was witness to the transition of telephone answering services from old-fashioned telephone switchboard operators–no kidding, like Lilly Tomlin’s “Ernestine” character–
to computerized switching. I spent so much time around those operators that I can still today recite some of the customers:

“M&M Patio, may I help you?”

Those operators doing their thing still ring through the ages for me. All this was in the time before voicemail largely displaced that particular profession.

Enjoying my free rein, I could play with old telephone equipment to my heart’s content, and I could explore the emergency medical equipment and tools in all directions.

I knew what an Ambu bag and mass trousers were before I could diagram a sentence.

I learned how to patch a switchboard at the same time I learned to ride a bike.

I had full access. In retrospect, it was a part of my childhood that was replete with lessons.

What I learned

Both businesses were 24x7x365, reactive operations. As the son of entrepreneurs running businesses of this sort, I grew to expect that mom worked the holidays.

More significant than that: I never, ever, witnessed an adult say “that’s not my job” or “I’m off today, somebody else will handle it” or “I’m calling in sick today.”


It was no big deal…we knew why.



Risk taking.

That simple reality alone has had a profound impact on my life and work, not to mention on the (low) level of my appreciation for paycheck players and iron bureaucrats of all sorts.

The entrepreneur’s life wasn’t easy, but it was colorful.

To this day, I’ll take colorful over easy anytime.

But, I digress.

It was about the people…

The part that was most interesting is what I took away from the people; and that’s what this article is about. 24X7 professional operations of these sorts have a lot of downtime for the people in them.

To wit, I can remember building model airplanes with one of the EMTs, learning how to properly wash a car and change out spark plugs from another; and getting to know all sorts of people who worked in the business–old, young, men, women, black, white, creole, Asian, serious, funny, mean, nice and all points in between on each.

Such personalities and the inherent downtime of the operations mixed to produce some amusement and some lessons for a kid like me wandering around the operation.

Which brings me to this:

How I found the Yin and Yang of leadership culture in the bunk room of an ambulance service

In the sleeping quarters for the overnight ambulance crews–replete with bed frames hammered together with pine 2x4s and framing nails–was a steel desk. I’d be willing to bet it had been picked up at an army surplus auction back in the 1970s.

At some point, a person had used a cool-for-that-time-period Dymo label maker, one like the one in the picture here, to leave behind some wisdom on its right side pull-out writing surface.

That person, likely bored beyond comprehension and enjoying a moment toying around with the label maker; pressed out a phrase.

It read:

It’s the basic definition of accountability. The Yang of leadership culture.

Probably thinking it was a good phrase to live by (or just a way of ribbing other crew members), the person peeled and stuck the phrase to the writing surface of the desk.

At some point later, a second person took the same labeller and pressed out Phrase 2. It read:

Phrase 2 was stuck just below Phrase 1… as a sort of quasi-professional, realpolitik-driven retort to the self righteousness of Phrase 1. The Yin of leadership culture.

I suppose I discovered the two stickers when I was 8 or 9 years old. I have never spoken or written of them until I decided to write this short article.

Probably half of that is because of the language they are written with isn’t all that polite; and half is because it has taken me a long time to really grasp the significance of their brutal and ironic simplicity.

The significance of the Yin and Yang…

Now, language aside–and, yes, I spent all of my childhood around a crew that could curse the paint off the walls–these two phrases encompass two very different and very relevant sides of leadership culture.

One one side are the people who take responsibility. On the other side are those who duck responsibility.

The dark and the light.

The Yin and the Yang.

You have, in the form of two very basic phrases, the foundations of organizational and leadership culture.

Just as the Tao I’ve used in the opening image for this post implies that light and dark reinforce one another, and to a small degree reside within one another; these two sides of leadership culture reinforce and infiltrate one another.

In most organizations, there is a competitive equilibrium between the accountable set and the avoidant set. The accountable ones find positions and actions that are profitable, and the avoidant ones do the same.

It is in the behaviors that we, the leaders, reward that we determine which set gets to be dominant.

Which animals do you feed, and which do you slaughter?

I’ve seen organizations feed both sides. Based on that, I’d choose accountable.

Why this matters

I hope you’ll take away two things from this story:

First, this matters because great leaders give credit and take responsibility.

Do you find yourself in a culture where people do that? Or, at least, do you find that accountable people are rewarded more than avoidant ones?

Or, do you find yourself in a culture where people give responsibility and take credit? They lay off risk and lay on the stories of their successes.

It’s a simple assessment. Are the most accountable people in your organizations also the ones most likely to be “slaughtered” when the fan stops spinning?

It’s an existential question for individuals and for organizations.

Second, I hope you’ll see that this story matters because your organization and community is training its next generation of leaders.

No, it’s not doing so through your training programs.

It’s doing so through the equivalent of a label maker and a desktop.

The informal culture wins the day. The behaviors that get fed day in and day out are the ones that grow.

It really doesn’t matter what speeches, brochures, or PowerPoint documents you distribute.

The reason I went into detail on the autobiographical vignette is that I was made a better professional and leader by the diverse and sometimes “not-fit-for-kids” environments that I was able to explore and experience.

The diversity of experience I was blessed with has made me better.

I’m sure, somewhere out there, there are kids (and young professionals) who still get those types of experiences; and I hope all of us as parents and leaders will encourage them.

In the meantime, the rest of us can learn by osmosis from this particular Yin and Yang of leadership culture.

Feed the accountable ones.

Please share your thoughts on this article below…

Mark Cuban: This Bubble is Worse

Mark Cuban, famed Internet bubble beneficiary, Dallas Mavericks owner, and willing pundit, posted on his blog a couple of days ago about the new bubble in early stage assets.

Here’s your LINK

Cuban makes a compelling case that the current frenzy of investment in early stage companies (especially apps and small tech companies) is actually worse than the year 2000-era tech bubble.


Because there are far fewer options for liquidity for the types of early stage investments that are dominating today; and there is a far more diverse investor base putting money at risk.

He sets up the situation with this quote:

“In a bubble there is always someone with a “great” idea pitching an investor the dream of a billion dollar payout with a comparison to an existing success story.  In the tech bubble it was, AOL, Netscape, etc.  Today its, Uber, Twitter, Facebook, etc.”

Interestingly, Cuban lists… That caught my eye.

When a billionaire puts the source of his vast wealth on a list of companies that perhaps just maybe were sold based on a pitch and a dream, it catches my attention.   He actually overcomes the cognitive dissonance induced justification of how his own company was different; and just throws it in the street right alongside Netscape.

He then goes on to lament how the average Joe and Jane are now part of the angel investment crowd.  He explains how they have access to illiquid investments through angel investments and crowdfunding that they would not have had 15 years ago.

And he thinks it’s a bad thing.  His quote:

“All those Angel investments in all those apps and startups.  All that crowdfunded equity. All in search of their unicorn because the only real salvation right now is an exit or cash pay out from operations.  The SEC made sure that there is no market for any of these companies to go public and create liquidity for their Angels.  The market for sub 25mm dollar raises is effectively dead. DOA . Gone. Thanks SEC. And with the new Equity CrowdFunding rules yet to be finalized, there is no reason to believe that the SEC will be smart enough to create some form of liquidity for all those widows and orphans who will put their $5k into the dream only to realize they can’t get any cash back when they need money to fix their car”

It’s an interesting read.

Informed consent is a big deal.  When people have access to illiquid and extremely high risk investments, they have to know what they are getting into.  The implication here may not be so much that public valuations are totally out of whack, but rather that there is a shadow bubble of money being thrown at “big things” that come in illiquid packages.

I think Mark Cuban has hit on one of the dark sides of the democratization of capital allocation.

How to Punch Through Adversity

A renewed focus on individual and organizational entrepreneurship provides a “puncher’s chance” when dealing with ambiguity and adversity.

On November 5, 1994, an object lesson in responding to adversity occurred.

On that date, 45-year old boxer George Foreman–known as much at that time for being the spokesmodel for his eponymous grill as for his boxing–knocked out Michael Moorer, who was up to that point the undefeated reigning World Heavyweight Boxing Champion…and 19 years Foreman’s junior.

Moorer outboxed Foreman for nine rounds, turning Foreman’s face into a fleshy swollen mess. During those nine rounds, Foreman struggled to throw punches and certainly didn’t evade many thrown at him.

And then, in the tenth round… Boom.

Foreman, well known for his punching power, slipped in a short right hand that crushed Moorer’s chin, knocked him to the canvas, and won Foreman the championship for the second time after a 20 year hiatus.

Here’s that classic 10th round on video:

Note the comment from Foreman’s corner man at the beginning of the video:

We gotta put this guy down…we’re behind, baby!

They knew they were losing. Foreman had eaten a steady meal of Michael Moorer’s right jab.  He was way behind and beaten badly.

Foreman was old, heavy, slow, and beaten up going into that 10th round. Moorer was young, fast, strong, fit, and ahead in the bout.

But, Foreman had a chance. His chance was embodied in his wrecking ball of a right hand.

That “chance” put Moorer’s lights out at 2:12 of the video.

The Lesson…

There’s this thing in boxing. It’s called the “puncher’s chance.” It means that a boxer with a strong punch–a go-to skill that can turn a bout on a dime–always has a chance to win. The puncher’s chance applies to those who have it even when they are the lowliest underdogs facing the most superior of opponents.

It doesn’t guarantee a win, but it offers the light of hope to those who have it, even in the midst of a beating. It is literally a means of punching through adversity.

So What?

We all should aspire–individually and in the teams and organizations we lead–to have a foundational capability that helps us punch our way out of adversity. In the most dire of circumstances, having a core capability to call on can mean the difference between having a chance and having none.

We should aspire, in other words, to cultivate a puncher’s chance.

In simple terms, the puncher’s chance in a business environment is a valued capability that, regardless of environment, allows an individual or an enterprise to endure, grow, and prosper.

Be careful, though: For every true cultivated go-to capability, there’s an mountain of pablum about “competitive advantage” and “core competencies” to wade through.

There’s also that catch about “valued” capability–be careful not to claim the ability to spin and confabulate as constituting a valued capability. It isn’t. It’s a delaying tactic just waiting to be exposed.

So, what gives you a puncher’s chance?

What foundational capability gives you your best chance to overcome adversity, individually or as the leader of an entire enterprise?

Is it superior operations? Sales? Marketing? Product development and innovation? Design? Supply chain expertise? Executive talent? Cost control? Effort and work ethic?

In reality, that’s for you to answer. It might be different for you.

In my estimation, the best analogy to the puncher’s chance in business is a deep seated appreciation for and cultivation of


It’s the crushing right hand just looking for a chin to demolish. It’s the single latent capability that can save an organization time and time again, regardless of market context.

Unfortunately, it’s also the capability that gets quashed most quickly by risk-averse and resilience-starved corporate hierarchies.

Still, in the most staid corporate contexts you’ll encounter, where cost control and small thinking rules the day, it is on the shoulders of a few enterprising individuals and teams that success tends to ride. Those individuals drive activities like:

  • Development of profitable new products and markets that nobody in the corporate hierarchy wanted.
  • Development of new customer accounts that others viewed as too hard, too distant, or too far off strategy.
  • Growth of key leaders who renew the organization in tough times
  • Response to muted customer inquiries that turn into significant opportunities
  • Establishment of entire new businesses that feed off the capabilities of the organization in entirely new ways.
  • Constant focus on competitive activity and required responses, acting as the few sentinels for the health of the organization.

In the process, the individuals and teams who do these things create possibilities where none existed…

…and that, my friends, is what the puncher’s chance is all about–a very real something from an apparent nothing.

But, how do you cultivate it?

On some level, it’s fair to debate whether entrepreneurship as a capability is a nature or nurture proposition. I’d argue that entrepreneurial capability can not only be taught, but that it is also contagious.

The flip side is that it is also easily extinguished.

In any event, if you are looking to cultivate this particular punch, here are 5 ways to start:

  • Establish clarity on boundariesEnsure that you achieve clarity on what values apply (i.e., what you won’t do) and what boundaries exist (i.e., where you won’t do it). This applies to you and to your organization.
  • Relentlessly encourage resourcefulness The most ossified of organizations fall into the trap of top down management. People in the organization become so used to being second guessed that they never even bother with the first guess and therefore lose whatever entrepreneurial spirit they had. Encouraging resourcefulness means asking for, listening to, and developing novel perspectives on markets and solutions to pressing issues vs. telling the answer. It also means holding yourself to a standard of generating options vs. finding problems.
  • Generate risk awareness Ensure that leaders in the organization have a sense of ownership and understanding of the price of risk. This can be done through incentives, but also through mere transparency around how capital of all sorts is allocated within the enterprise. Such transparency shows smart people the types of risks a company is willing to underwrite and reward. For you individually, establish thresholds for risks you are willing to take with your career, your income, and your wealth.
  • Role model resilienceIn an odd and ironic point of fact, senior executives in large organizations tend not to be all that tolerant of ambiguity or error. That reality is a driver of the great divide between the mindset of an entrepreneur and the mindset of a solid corporate manager or executive. Corporate managers look at a project and see all the risks, the reasons not to do it, and how to effectively hedge the budget. Entrepreneurs tend to look at a project and wonder why it can’t be done faster and better; all the while disregarding any need for hedging because “you win some and lose some.” Execs need to role model a resilient mindset more often.
  • Reward entrepreneurship asymmetrically – Though such an assertion flies in the face of the world of compensation hierarchies, benchmarks, job classes and bands, and workplace equity; find ways to recognize and compensate intelligent risk takers asymmetrically. Too often, the perceived cost of entrepreneurship exceeds the potential recognition or upside. It tends to look more like executives and shareholders providing a “heads I win, tails you lose” proposition when viewed from the lower end of the hierarchy. Share the wealth…Loudly.

No matter how beaten up your organization is in its markets, how many product launch failures you’ve endured, how much market share you’ve seen erode; the ability to constantly redefine and attack markets and problems with an entrepreneurial edge gives you and your organization a puncher’s chance.

These tips work for enterprises large and small, and certainly work for individual professionals. History is rife with examples. Apple Computer emerged from being a PC maker to being a dominant player in mobile and media markets. Texas Instruments was once an oil and gas exploration services company. GE was Thomas Edison’s hobby shop. IBM made mainframes.

But, watch out!

Perspective matters. Many of you reading this think you know your core ability…”I have it, it’s my competitive advantage and it’s X” (fill in the X with your known strength). Keep in mind that while you might be the fit, strong champ in control of the bout, the other guy just might have a stone cold right fist to throw your way.

The other guy might have a puncher’s chance. Watch out for it.

Today, executives believe that 46% of global strategies fail to deliver. So many companies are trying to develop agility top-down in order to respond to a rapidly changing environment.

We simply can’t rely on top-down thinking driven by corporate savants to save the day.

So, cultivate a tight focus on entrepreneurial mindsets alongside loose control over skilled people.

Do it to drive wins, even while choking on the modern world’s heavy dose of volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity.

Cultivate your own puncher’s chance.

Find a way to win.