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Why ghosting may be the most unforgivable professional sin

There are professional ways to end a relationship, and silent indifference is not one of them.

Geoff Wilson

I was amused (appalled?) yesterday by a trend on LinkedIn that noted how the supply/demand balance had shifted so much in talent markets that people are resorting to “ghosting” at work.

Ghosting, a dating term that means ending a relationship by suddenly and without notice ending all communications, manifests itself in the workplace by people quitting without giving notice, or not showing up on their scheduled first day of work, or no-showing for interviews.  And it’s certainly a direct reflection on any candidate’s professionalism when they stop communicating or simply don’t show up.

Which brings to mind a thought for those of us in the professional realm: Ghosting is never the right way to end things.  No matter how busy you are, how important you are, or how indifferent you are to the other person or company, it’s always professional to invest a moment of your time in achieving closure.

I spend a portion of my time, as does anyone with a firm like mine, developing relationships and ideas for service; I usually do this alongside a very busy executive who has a need for help. The process of developing ideas and investing in new relationships is a significant investment of time and mind share, but it’s part of the trade.  In the years I have been doing this, four instances of ghosting stand out; these are the executives who go through the motions of scoping and idea generation, solicit a proposal, and then drop off the face of the earth. They are the cultivators of free information and free options for service. It bears saying that I am not referring to lost proposals: You win some and you lose some.  I am referring to proposals that have gone into a black hole, never to be acknowledged as residing in this universe.

Invariably, the ghosting executives wonder why people don’t enjoy working with them.  And, when there is some future outreach, there is always the “I was so busy” trope.  This usually comes from a busy executive who doesn’t stop to think that perhaps those around him who are responding to his requests are equally busy.  That excuse is chuckle-worthy.

Now, I must say that I write this as someone who values closure.  I especially value it when there has been mutual investment around a topic–no matter the context.  I once sat through a lunch discussion with the most dishonest person I ever met after a being a part of a series of negotiations with her; and I did it just to close things out–I can still taste the bile from that one.  Yeah, I’d say I enjoy closing the book…ending the discussion…getting to “yes” or “no” as the case may be.

So, why the moment on ghosting? Because life is longer than we like to admit.  You’re too busy to say “no” to that proposal, or to politely decline that next phone call, or to ensure that you have cancelled your attendance at that next interview?  Just remember that lapses in professionalism have a nasty habit of coming home to roost, and lapses that result in wasted time and lost value are among the worst. Ghosting may, in fact, be the most unforgivable professional sin.

What do you think?  Have you been ghosted in a professional setting?  

 

Trump: A demonstration of how executive mandates fail

Your leadership mandate fails when people start to believe it has.

Geoff Wilson

“I did nothing wrong.” So many failed executives begin there to explain unsuccessful stints as leaders. But I’m here to tell you that it’s the appearance of failure that precedes executive failure, not actual failure.

President Trump’s former campaign chair Paul Manafort’s home was raided by the FBI this week in ongoing investigations of whether the Trump campaign had improper contacts with Russia. This follows months upon months of speculation about improprieties involving Russia.

The cynics and opposition already believe Trump is unethical. Trump’s defenders claim there isn’t evidence of the accused impropriety, and that extreme political attacks from the opposition are leading to mass insinuation regarding collusion with Russia.

But when the campaign chair is raided by the FBI, even the defenders have to pause and think. It looks like the apolitical investigators believe Trump’s closest advisors can’t be trusted to be forthcoming. And that is where an executive’s mandate gets crushed. Trump’s defenders will, perhaps rightly, say that no wrongdoing was done. And they miss the point. Because it’s the appearance of impropriety that destroys your mandate, eventually.

If you’re an executive, you don’t have to engage in acts of conspiracy to defraud your shareholders to be removed from office for conspiring to defraud your shareholders. And you don’t have to sleep with your subordinate to be removed for inappropriate workplace relationships. You just need enough people to believe that the accusations are possible.

If people believe an accusation is possible, you’ve already lost. And when numbers and facts start to back it up, it becomes easier to believe. How many times did you inappropriately round those numbers in that financial report? How often did you take overnight trips alone with that one subordinate? How many meetings did your organization have with Russian organizations. These elements of appearance quickly become perceived evidence of impropriety.

So what?

You want to keep your mandate? Appear and act like you should.

Here is one of the most useful aphorisms in life and work: We judge ourselves on our intentions, and we judge others on their actions. Remember that you’re being judged on your actions—even the appearance of your actions—no matter your intentions (or even the private facts).

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?

 

Take the right strategic steps to confront mistakes at minimal cost

Facing our managerial miscues is painful. Properly rectifying missteps is paramount.

Geoff Wilson

“That’s too much savings!” The manager looked at the spreadsheet that showed he had been overspending by more than 50 percent on a particular service under a sweetheart deal he thought he had. He was clearly mortified by what the math displayed. “Too much savings” meant a long history of too much spending, and he was the one responsible.

The phrase resonates to this day. A team member of mine who was on the aforementioned project alongside me still occasionally drops me the question via text or email: “Are you still getting too much savings these days?” It’s a delightful “How ya doin’?” But that episode, while humorous to consider in isolation, actually illustrates a good lesson about confronting reality as business leaders.

At some point, we all must face the unpleasant fact that we’ve made mistakes. We’ve hired the wrong people, bought and sold at ill-timed prices, or invested in the wrong markets. It happens to every one of us who actually make decisions. We try to be perfect, but we’re simply not.

My overspending manager, however, compounded his imperfection by trying to sidestep the inevitable pain of confronting a mistake. He popped the infamous “too much savings” comment not to state that we were going to cut costs too far, but rather to convey “I can’t give this to my boss because it will show I’ve made a big mistake.”

And that’s the problem. Analyzing our decisions sometimes reveals that we’ve made bad ones. And correcting poor decisions often means facing the proverbial music—the dirge of our defeat. We must admit it and move forward. And that’s hard.

If we examine a bad investment we’ve made and choose not to write it off but to instead double down on it because, well, doing the right thing would be too painful, we’ve ultimately determined that doing the right thing is wrong because of the optics or our insecure need to save face. Such decisions may be human nature, but they’re also cowardly, selfish, and detrimental to personal and organizational growth.

If you find yourself in a situation where the answer is so right that it’s wrong, ask yourself why. The correct strategic shift often comes with a cost, but the price of inaction is typically not less than your own job.

After all, if you won’t make the right decision, the person who replaces you probably will. And he or she will look like a hero doing it.

What do you think?

United Airlines and Only Following Orders

Only following policy only hurts your business.

By now, you’ve doubtless seen the sturm und drang surrounding United Airlines’s escalation of an unreasonable passenger’s behavior to forcible police action against the passenger.

If not, here’s one link to give you some background.

United’s CEO Oscar Munoz then, and now famously, backed his employees for following the rules and doing the right thing.   He called the passenger “disruptive” and “belligerent” and emphatically stood behind his employees.

Now, a lot has already been written about how United took the most painful route to resolution with this situation (not this passenger, more on that later).  The company could have simply continued to raise the offer of compensation to passengers who would leave the plane until “somebody” felt it was worth it to leave.  Investor’s Business Daily had a decent article on this.  It’s here.  

But, that article, while precisely right, probably ignores a reality of large company “policy and procedure.”  And, I’m just guessing here.  But, what we have likely seen is the result of a company policy that prevents gate agents from offering more than “X” dollars compensation for re-accommodation.  In other words, the gate agents, in escalating this circumstance to (1) random selection of passengers and (2) calling in the police were merely “following orders” or “complying with policy.”

Having a large number of people in a large organization adhere to policy is good for business as a rule.  But it’s awful for business during a true hard case.  And, it appears that this is a true hard case.

As many of you have probably experienced in sales and retail environments, someone sticking “policy” in your face as a means to resolving customer service rarely makes you a more loyal, understanding customer.

And this is where United’s CEO got this one wrong.  Munoz has been attacked from the perspective of his communications being awful for public relations; but I’ll go so far as to say his words are probably bad for business.

What he said to his employees in an internal email was “I emphatically stand behind all of you.”

That’s an admirable statement from a CEO, and not an easy one to make in a crisis like this. But it is a callous response to the brutality of events precipitated by United’s escalation to the police.

What he should have said was probably something like “I stand behind you, but in a truly hard circumstance like the one we just experienced, you have the discretion to choose a better way.” And, he ought to ensure policy allows for it.

Now, on the passenger:  It’s quite possible that this particular passenger would have stayed on the airplane no matter what.  He appears to be a truly unreasonable fellow. At the end of his ordeal, he wasn’t dealing with flight attendants, but with the police.  When you are non-compliant with a sworn law enforcement officer, you are making your own bed.

But this situation isn’t about that guy.  That guy exists on every flight in America. Forget him. He’s a screaming lunatic who put himself and his travel plans above dozens of other people’s (before he was forcibly removed, then walked back on the plane).  That’s true no matter whether he was “technically” right just as it’s true that Oscar Munoz’s comments were wrong even if “technically” right.

This is about the other dozens of passengers, at least one of whom might have left for a higher price. I’m always surprised when we fail to look at circumstances like this one and forget that there wasn’t just one option available to United…there were dozens of other options, many of whom were probably closer to leaving than the guy who ultimately was dragged off the flight.  People have already forgotten that the unruly passenger wasn’t the only one selected against his will.

There were three others.

The other three left peacfully, probably with some compensation and a hotel room for the night (and no doubt with a bad taste in their mouth about United).  Sure, that may make them “sheep” with no respect for their “rights,” but it left them with choices, too.

While responsibility for the escalation resides with United and “policy,” I think it’s fair to say to United employees that they will encounter another jerk in the future.  Their option is to blacklist that jerk from ever flying United again if he chooses to take this flight at this time against the company’s wishes and policy, and select another passenger.

It’s the jerk’s choice at that point.

So, bad things all around.  The CEO’s “right” but callous focus on company policy is a bad thing for business.  The passenger’s “right” but idiotic stand ultimately got him entangled with the police.

Sometimes, a little discretion is all it takes.  Only following policy only hurts business.

What do you think?

 

 

Mongolian Beef and the Moment of Truth

We all face moments of truth.  What do yours reveal about you?

 

This past Friday evening–at the end of what was a fantastic week–I decided to drop in on a local Chinese food restaurant for takeout before heading home to my family.

It was a regular drop in on a business I hadn’t been to in probably four months.  I placed a “robust” order to feed our family of 6, and then walked outside the restaurant to talk on the phone while my order was prepared.

When I walked back in, one earphone in my ear and the other dangling so that I could pick up my two sackfuls of Chinese goodness, the cook and proprietor of the restaurant pointed to the sacks and said “I made you a Mongolian Beef to make up for the one I missed last time.”

I was astounded.

“Last time,” as I noted above, had to have been four months ago.  I vaguely remembered, only after the cook pointed it out, that I had indeed arrived home one Mongolian Beef short of my full order on that trip.  I remember calling briefly and letting the shop know (without much fanfare…literally just “hey, wanted you to know we were short on this one…no big deal.”).

And the cook remembered better than me.

He, no doubt, had a moment of truth where his customer walked in, didn’t say a word about a past service miss, placed a big order, and then waited.  The moment of truth was that moment when he faced the choice of either to address a prior miss that hadn’t been remembered by the customer, or to just go with the flow and ignore it–banking on the customer’s ignorance.

On moments of truth

There’s a reality in customer service–all parts of business and life, really.  It’s that we all face moments of truth.  Moments of truth are moments that force us to reveal–at the very least to ourselves–who we really are.

It may be that moment when you ought to deliver hard feedback to a client but decide not to because it’s too, well, hard.

It may be that moment when you return that overpayment to your customer like it’s a hot potato because you are not about keeping your customers’ money.

And, yes, it may be that moment when you remember a customer issue from four months ago and go the extra mile to mitigate it when the chance, finally, arises again.

We all have moments of truth in our lives. Moments of truth are moments of truth because we quite often have discretion about which way we go.

We can choose.

We can hide from the truth and reveal that we are, in fact, cowardly (like in my feedback example above).  Or, we can face the music and see where it takes us.

The question we all should consider is this:  When faced with my moment of truth, what will it reveal about me?

We should all hope for the revelation of strength of character in such moments.

What do you think?

When Your Karma Runs Over Your Dogma

What goes around actually does come around every now and then. Choose your methods wisely.

 

The recent U.S. presidential election and the veritable smorgasbord of delicious irony–current and impending–has me thinking…

This is not a political blog.  But, it’s hard to ignore the very real strategic insights that come from an election that gives us:

  1. A winning candidate whose methods of winning have left a lot of scorched earth to recover–whether you think him a buffoon, a fighter, a genius, or simply a flawed person (like all of us).
  2. A media sector whose methods have demolished whatever trust remained in it for the time being, leading up to the New York Times editorial board needing to redouble its efforts on “reporting America and the world honestly” (an astounding non-admission if there ever was one).
  3. A set of supporters of the non-winning candidate who now realize that the methods of powers that were behind some of the biggest “wins” for their side (budget reconciliation, as a starter…) probably could be used against them once power passes to someone they simply don’t like.
  4. A vastly smaller set of people who have chosen to protest, riot, and in general cry foul while breaking things in response to what was a fair outcome (not policy outcomes…the person, mind you).

So, what’s the insight?

I’ll give it to you simply, and it’s nothing original.  It’s this:

If you live by the sword, be prepared to die by the sword.

If you live by bullying, shouting down, ignoring, and using unique devices to get your way, then just know that turnabout, while not always fair, is in play.  Yes, in this case I’m referring to the healthy proportion of Democrat Party supporters who have taken off their “open minded, tolerant” masks to show that actually, it was really just either “our way or broken glass.”

But, the truth is we all resort to such conveniences without thinking about it.

We all choose what our dogma says we should, and ignore the blow-back that is likely to come later.  in the 2000’s, U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan stemmed from a neoconservative dogma that everybody, eventually, responds to the big stick.  That dogma is flawed (and, ironically enough, proven wrong by the very existence of the United States of America).  The blow-back the U.S. has experienced both internally and externally since deciding to prosecute those wars is instructive of the flawed dogma.

The same is true in the private sector.

I know of multiple executives–some of whom are recently “returned to the market”–whose own arrogance, conspiracies, and secrecy-driven styles ultimately boomeranged on them.

The blow-back was real, and easily foreseeable for anyone who knew the nitty-gritty details.

One in particular was so dogmatic about a social Darwinist approach (and their own superiority to others within that worldview) that, when faced with feedback about their own behaviors and how such behavior could get them figuratively offed from the organization, just cruised right on into oblivion perilously ensconced in the calm self-confidence that such dogma can bring.

One might, in fact, call it karmic justice that the individual faced a sudden and unceremonious ouster from a cold, unfeeling, and similarly dogmatic (about other important character traits) boss.

It’s kind of like what we have witnessed in the “how could we be so wrong” set of 2016 election pollsters who were, in fact, so wrong about the election. The pollsters couldn’t measure the number of people in their polls who, uncomfortable with being called deplorable or bigoted for voicing their support for President Elect Trump (it’s still a stunning reality to write that, by the way), simply didn’t answer the polls correctly. The pollsters’ dogma was in the numbers and not the very real human elements of strategic prognostication.  Human character traits matter.

Sometimes, character traits that can only be measured in actions or lack of actions–not numbers–are the ones that carry the day. Executives who perform beautifully on the financial numbers but who ignore their own character flaws and how those might be viewed by other powerful people are similar.

They succumb to blind spots.

But, they are blind spots only to those who don’t understand the notion of living and dying by the sword.

If you are a strategic jerk–pitting customers and employees against one other for constant gain–then don’t be shocked when someone comes along and beats you at your own game.

If you are an organizational jerk–saying you hire and fire people for their performance but really only when you like and dislike them–then don’t be shocked when someone comes along and simply…doesn’t like you.

If you are a political jerk, using false promises and propanda to fool and lie to people in order to get them to follow you, then don’t be shocked when someone comes along and appropriates your own emotion driving style, and beats you at your own game.

The incoming Trump administration and pretty much any of us presiding as executives ought to take heed:  When your dogma gets run over by your karma…it ain’t pretty.

If you find yourself in a position of believing there is no way you are wrong, then you probably are already wrong.

Choose your methods wisely.

You’ve just taken the time to read this…now take the time to comment.  What do you think? 

 

They Believe in Good Ethics, Too!

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

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

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

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

Do you believe in a high ethical standard?

Good for you!

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

Sounds dark and cynical, doesn’t it?

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

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

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

…all the while leading an ethical company or organization.

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

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

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

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

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

I’m embarrassed to know that these are facts.

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

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

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

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

They believe in ethics, too.

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

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

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

What do you think?

Strategic synthesis: The art and corruption of brevity

Pithy management insights have their place—and their perils.

Geoff Wilson

I dig synthesis. I mean, I really enjoy enlivening concepts by making them simple and direct. You say, “I want to have the best service, best product, best operations, and the best brand.” I say, “You want a delighted customer.”

See what I did there? Same concept, synthesized. But synthesis is a Goldilocks proposition: too much and you get burned; too little and you’re left cold. Take the above example. Is it sufficient feedback? I’m not sure. That mostly depends on the leadership team receiving the synthesis.

I know some leadership teams that would take “delighted customer” and turn it into a map of service, product, operations, brand, etc. And I know other leadership teams that would hear “delighted customer” and knuckle down on their customer service function. It’s obvious, right? Customer service is the function that delights customers … right? Wrong.

That’s where synthesis is dangerous. Excess synthesis make you pithy. Pithiness is useful in some contexts. Look at the typical internet meme and you’ll see pithiness writ large. But go too far down the pithy path and you end up at pithy’s dangerous neighbor: glibness.

If synthesis is a beautiful red wine, pithiness is a wine cooler, and glibness is a nasty bottle of Boone’s Farm. Dilettantes guzzle Boone’s until they suffer the consequences. Boone’s is cheap, shallow, and insincere—just like a glib statement.

boones

To wit, I’m struck by a meme that recently passed through my LinkedIn feed. It depicts Simon Sinek and a quote about hiring attributed to him:

sinek-skills

This statement epitomizes glib, dangerous advice. Would you select your surgeon based on demeanor? Or choose a mechanic based on attitude? Of course not.

The advice is so extremely context-driven as to be useless. It’s not pithy, it’s shallow—glib, even. Such thinking may apply to the most basic entry-level or noncritical jobs, but adopting the same philosophy to hire your CFO would not only be moronic but could also put you in jail.

While I’m not trying to disparage Sinek—I don’t even know if he approves of the use of this particular quotation—I am denigrating truthiness in management advice. Sinek, I suspect, may know better. Synthesis is an art of the highest order. It delivers precisely what you need when you need it.

Pithiness is an art, too, but it’s a corruptible one. Pithy bullshit sells. But that same pithy bullshit can also get you in deep trouble. Leaders, strategists, managers, and people of all sorts must be skilled at hearing a pitch, proverb, or proposal and searching for the bones beneath it.

If I tell you to “delight your customer,” you may be able to find the full skeleton of a well-built customer-value proposition. At that point, I may have done my job. But f I tell you to “delight your customer” and you then zero in on only the customer service function, I haven’t done enough. I’ve delivered you a wine cooler when you actually need more wine.

If Sinek tells you to hire for attitude and then teach skills, and you rightly ask how that works when hiring senior software engineers, you have properly looked for the bones that were never there. You’re calling bullshit on a tidy, pithy, pseudo-synthetic glass of glibness. Think Boone’s Farm.

Such swill is from the bottom shelf of management thinking—just like a $2 bottle of “strawberry-flavored citrus wine” (a description that sounds like the recipe for a bad hangover). You can live with a wine cooler now and then, but if you’re swigging Boone’s Farm, you’re in for a rough awakening.

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.

Sincerely,

Your much older self