The cure that kills

Corporate change programs can be toxic treatments unless heavily dosed with honest communication.

Geoff Wilson

Early in my career, I had a conversation with a mid-level manager (let’s call him Carl) within a large company undergoing a tense operational change. Carl was responsible for multiple small sites in the organization’s footprint. He led tens of people. It wasn’t hundreds or thousands, but still significant.

I was a fledgling consultant to top management at Carl’s company. My team was focused on designing the approach to the company’s change. In my conversation with Carl, I asked how things were done and what would help with the change.

The conversation was productive, but then Carl paused. I now know it was the pause that comes before someone actually breaks through the facade of their professional life. At that point in my career, however, I just thought he was thinking.

Carl then laid it out there: “All these corporate programs—I can’t tell which way things are going or why we are doing what we are doing.” He paused again, and then unleashed the words that have stuck with me ever since: “It makes you feel like a beaten dog. You flinch every time the corporate hand comes toward you because you are more used to it beating you than it helping you.”

And there, my friends, was a life-changing moment. It was life changing for two reasons:

  • Carl was an honest guy. He was trying to comply with corporate mandates—and was getting crushed in the process. He lacked access to any rhyme or reason for the change.
  • I had a core belief (now solidified) that no senior executive walks into the office seeking to foist valueless initiatives on his or her people for the sheer joy of creating confusion and frustration. (Side note: After years as an advisor and executive, I’ve known one or two executives who propagate valueless initiatives for the sake of their own ego, but not as real sadists. The end result is the same, but the intent isn’t)

In Carl’s case, the two sides of the circuit—top management and line leaders—had strong values and desires to do great jobs. But they weren’t connecting. The missed connection was consequently crushing drive and initiative where it was needed most.

In other words, initiatives, mandates, and highly valuable corporate performance programs driven from the top looked—to those most needed to buy into them—more like beatings than opportunities. They were systemic “cures” handed down from corporate offices that could literally kill local energy and focus. The programs dulled the edge of the very people meant to be sharpened by them.

Not only that, but the entire situation very quickly made senior leaders look like the “doctors” in this post photo. Not folks you’d seek out for a cure, eh?

In the history of medical science, many so-called cures have proven lethal not only to diseases, but also to patients. The history of cancer chemotherapy is rife with such instances. Actress/playwright Anna Deavere Smith deftly illustrated this concept in her solo play “Let Me Down Easy” when she wrote that cancer therapy is “like taking a stick and beating a dog to get rid of fleas.”

Corporate change programs—especially the big ones—sometimes have the same feel: indiscriminate cure targeting incorrigible disease launched against unassuming patients. A stick swung against the body, and then again but in a different way. Again. And again. And again. Striking nerves and tissue they don’t intend to strike, but doing damage anyway.

It’s a way of targeting performance that is often effective but sometimes lethal. Corporate change programs, like a stick used to beat a dog or a powerful chemical used to decimate a disease, can be a cure that kills. But the analogies break down at that point.

Why? Because we as corporate leaders are able to package and prepare our patients for our cure in a way that no canine or cancer patient’s body can ever be readied. We can turn the stick into a staff, or the chemotherapy into a nourishing concoction.

How? We can use the power of “why.” We can communicate not only what’s coming, but why it’s happening. We can explain the meaning of the action and its upside for stakeholders. In the cases of the worst outcomes—change programs that have necessary but terminal impact on some individuals—we can quite literally let those afflicted down easy.

We just need to take the time to do it. And do it repeatedly. And then to do it again. But how? Simon Sinek’s TED talk that encapsulates the concept of “starting with the ‘why'” is a helpful guide. For leaders to inspire action and minimize confusion, angst, and ultimately departure, we should ensure that the “why” reaches everyone the change impacts.

Summarizing change in a change story is a great way to start. Delivering it personally is even more captivating. Living the change out visibly is the ultimate approach. But there’s a catch: If you as an executive leader don’t change at all OR you change too often—especially if your “why” keeps changing while the world around you isn’t—you’re just swinging the stick in a different way.

Being outstanding at operations one quarter, great at growth the next, and excellent at efficiency the following only serves to show that you’re untethered from principle. That, or your principles aren’t what you’re packaging into your “why” to begin with. Either way, you resort to more of the same—except now, instead of death by confusion and randomness, you’re propagating death by disingenuousness.

Don’t be untethered, and don’t be disingenuous. You have to have vision and integrity.

Change leaders of all stripes: Stop beating your dogs. Use the power of preparation and communication. Drive performance by leading with the “why.”

Prescribe a cure that cures by preparing people for the treatment.

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

Say and Do: Partners In Success!

People hear what we say and watch what we do…


Among the things that people appreciate–whether you’re in professional services, in a corporate organization, or just living life–are consistency and reliability. What you “say” and what you “do” ought to be congruous. Your “say-do” reputation may be the most important reputation you can build.

Anyone who’s been in a leadership position or who has engaged service providers who have inconsistent say-do practices can appreciate this post. If I tell you that I will deliver a product on Thursday at 3 PM and then don’t tell you until the following Monday that the product will be late, you are going to be disappointed. And most people who deliver product understand this–any operator you ask will talk to you about on-time delivery and production schedules.

The issue, however, arises when we talk about services, general delivery, and interpersonal circumstances.

Let me tell you about an example:

I recently had a repair person come to my house to look at an appliance. The appliance required a small part that the repair person committed to ordering and that I was told, on requesting a timeline, would be here within two weeks. The repair person has responded to exactly one request in six weeks, and I am standing here confounded.

This is a true story that is happening right now.

What would you do? I suspect that most of you would say “Fire the repair man!,” and I completely agree. In this case, the appliance in question is not all that important, and I’ve let the timeline run out as a sort of experiment: Suffice it to say, I’m disappointed.

So, when we think about delivering service, whether to out clients, our bosses, or even our spouses and families, what we say and what we do must be aligned. Say-do practices are sacrosanct, but that doesn’t mean that every deadline is immovable.

I’ll give you three examples of delivery via management of say-do.

  • Example 1 is straightforward: I tell you I’m going to deliver and I do it, on scope and as stated.
  • Example 2 is more complicated: I tell you I’m going to deliver, and then I manage timing in order to do so fully. So, I deliver on time–against new time, or on revised time–and otherwise on scope and on quality.
  • Example 3 is even more complex, and generally arises when circumstances of delivery are so ambiguous that quality can’t be guaranteed: Imagine a project that requires market knowledge via primary interviews that may or may not be extremely valuable. In this case, I may revise timing in order to get to the required quality, I may revise scope or quality expectations in order to ensure that expectations are met, or I may just decide the deliverable isn’t worth delivering at all.

Each of these three scenarios has something in common: communication and consistency of commitment and delivery.

The scenario that you don’t see is the one that involves late delivery of a substandard product with no communication. That, my friends, is breaking the say-do rule. No one–not your kids, your clients, your customers, or your boss–wants to hear excuses after the fact.

I would enjoy your comments on this topic. Please feel free to engage below.

Technology – Putting the Cuss in Customer Experience

Why technology is indirectly stressing our customer service experience


The other day, while waiting for my prescription to be filled, I was subjected to one side of a heated phone conversation. A clearly frustrated lady was yelling at some poor person over the phone because her credit card had been denied; after several minutes, it transpired there was in fact nothing wrong with the card. As consumers, our expectations these days are high and our patience is low, and the same situation is also evident in the workplace. How many times in the last week have you heard someone complain about their job or their coworkers?  Happy workers seem to be the exception rather than the norm.

That got my brain ticking. Why is this, and what does it all mean?

I believe that technology is the root cause. Let me elaborate.

The prevalence of technology in our lives means that we are always ”on,” and this drives the expectation of instant results with minimum effort. Heck, you can even order a pizza with an emoji these days—pepperoni is only one click away. The speed of life in the developing world is beyond warp.

At the same time, we have become increasingly preoccupied with ourselves. Much has been written about the “me” culture and the incredible sense of entitlement that prevails. Social media has fueled this, providing an outlet for our narcissism and validation that the world does indeed feel we are worthy. This has to have an impact on our levels of tolerance and patience.

So there you have it—empowered consumers who expect instant, high-quality products and services; if they don’t receive them, they will let everyone know, and then take their business elsewhere.

Now let’s look at the business side. Thanks to technology, the pace and level of competition are now at record levels in many markets, and to stay afloat, businesses often have to become lean and mean. This inevitably means employees have fewer resources, greater workloads, and pressure to deliver.

What’s the impact?  You have to believe this affects levels of customer service. And do you see where this is going? Disgruntled employees meet demanding customers—it’s a powder keg.

So what can we do?  I believe there are small things we can do. As a consumer, a little empathy can go a long way. If you encounter a frazzled employee, instead of sharing your mind, share a few kind words, maybe wish them a pleasant day. If nothing else, it might just blow the person’s mind. As an employer, remember that your employees are human too. Small, genuine acts to show your appreciation can do a lot to build trust and loyalty. For example, a monthly pizza lunch can do wonders for team morale. And don’t forget, that pizza is only an emoji away.

What do you think?  Share your comments.

Always Do It Again Like the First Time…

Is the secret to life and professionalism finding the ability to lead, love, and perform with the fervor you once had?

Remember the first time you had to really perform in a meeting? Or the first time you had to give a subordinate a performance review? Or maybe the first time you were responsible for the sales call?

How about the first time you said “I love you” to a significant other and meant it?

Maybe you remember the first time you tried really hard to master a sport, or an art, or a language. You found a link between passion and performance. You went through pain or anguish or nervous uncertainty to get there.

Maybe these things don’t resonate for you, but still, there’s a first time for everything. And for those things we very much want to do well on, we do the work, we deliver with feeling. We, in short, find a way. The first time is hard won.

Unfortunately, for a lot of the things I just listed, there’s also a one hundredth time. For some performances, there is a ten thousandth time.

The Professional’s Call

This weekend, I had the opportunity to witness the performance of a virtuoso jazz musician in an intimate setting. I was able to see and hear the music flow from someplace within him that I couldn’t see. As is sometimes the case when we witness amazing talent in action, I struggled to understand how perfect the performance seemed, even when almost all of it was improvised (it was, after all, jazz).

During an intermission, the musician–acting as our host–told those of us in the audience an interesting anecdote about the great performer Burt Bacharach.

Bacharach is known for his performance of the song Alfie, a somber, meaningful song about life. Here it is:

Through some mental math, our host related that Bacharach, over his career, has likely performed Alfie more than 10,000 times. That’s 10,000 instances of a performer’s finding the same passion and emotion in an activity that he had the very first time. Our host explained that being able to perform every time with the passion of the first is, in a lot of ways, a secret to life.

A Lesson for Life and Work

The anecdote is a profound illustration of what it means to be a professional. It’s also, I think, a profound illustration of what it means to maintain curiosity, wonder, and passion within a world of banality and repetition.

Think about it. Can you imagine being able to experience the joy and wonder you felt during your first kiss during the goodnight kiss on your 30th anniversary? Can you imagine being able to say “I love you” today to your spouse with the same trepidation and sense of the future you had the first time?

What a rush!

A friend and mentor of mine once related to me that she knew she was doing well as a professional when she no longer felt nervous walking into meetings with senior executives; the act of leading meetings had become a rote exercise. I respect this point of view. I’ve lived through the maturation that she mentioned, and I’ve delivered the same insight to others. But while the maturity of professionalism is important, so is the passion.

I’ve witnessed countless professionals “going through the motions.”  They do endless meetings with no soul and no passion for vision or values. They work to their incentives like coin-operated machines. They look elsewhere for their passion and in the meantime demolish the hopes of their audiences. Except that their audiences are the people in their organizations or, in the worst cases, their potential business partners and customers.

We professionals, like the performers we really all are, must remember to go back to the passion (if not the nerves) of the first time if we are to deliver our own virtuosic performance on the hundredth or the thousandth time. If we seek to move others, we have to break out of the professional monotony that comes to us and deliver with feeling, and this matters whether you are a jazz pianist or a financial analyst.

Find an insight. Find something new in every repetition. Rediscover the first time you did it. Find the passion that comes with the first time—the hard-won first time—every time, and I do think that you’ll find at least one secret to life.

What Entrepreneurs Know that Corporate Execs Forget…

By looking at what entrepreneurs do well, the rest of us can learn something about strategic decision making and action.

It was 1997.

I was lucky enough, though I didn’t know it at the time, to score an internship as employee number 5 or 6 at E-Loan, Inc.  Such was one of the benefits of being a college student in the heart of Silicon Valley:  There were a lot of start-ups, and there was a lot of work to be done; so a guy like me with no experience beyond manual labor, retail, and a stint as a bouncer could find himself uploading the entire database of lending products to the start-up’s website every morning–performing the critical action of the company’s existence.

In the months I spent at the company, which spanned the launch of the website and the tripling of the employee base, I gained a lot of respect for what high-pace entrepreneurship actually is.

The rest of the E-Loan story is a lot like many others of the dot com era:  Growth, then a hot IPO, then challenges, then acquisition, repositioning, and ultimately in the years that have passed, a company that resembles the original only in name.

The rest of my story is a bit different. I took that experience, along with some other quality early-stage investment experience, and ended up as a larger company consultant and diversified manufacturing executive.  Those experiences have been exemplar of the sort of yin and yang learnings that my own life trajectory has offered; and that frankly inform the bulk of this blog.

Insight from all of that brings me to this:

Larger company leaders can learn from entrepreneurs how to occupy the “pinnacle” of strategy.  That pinnacle is the moment of decision.  It’s the decision seat.

Entrepreneurs do this well because, in essence, it may be all they have.

Large company executives do this poorly because they have the luxury of resources and time.

But they (perhaps, you?) can get better at it.

The Pinnacle of Strategy

What’s the pinnacle of strategy, and why the mountainous metaphor?  In short, it’s the decision seat that stands atop the mountain or molehill of data, insights, analysis, and synthesis of a point of view.

As a McKinsey alumnus, I have been well steeped in (and am a proponent of) Barbara Minto’s “Pyramid Principle” method of thinking and communicating.  The top of the “Pyramid” in action-oriented logic is a synthesis of a point of view. Only far too often, a point of view at the top of a pyramid lacks a pinnacle. That pinnacle is occupied by a decision maker, steeped in the rest of the pyramid, but willing to drive a decision.

Often–particularly in large company bureaucracies–the seat is vacant.  That reality is what gives so many consulting reports their negative dust-collecting reputation.

The difference between entrepreneurs and executives

When it comes to occupying the pinnacle, entrepreneurs have no choice.

During my time at E-Loan and around numerous other start-up businesses, one thing became clear:  Somebody was going to make a decision.  E-Loan was in the business of underwriting mortgage loans in California when it started up.  It, like many dot com businesses of that era, had no real automation when it came to processing the actual deluge of loan applications that came through its website.  We were processing loans on paper.  The popularity of the web being what it was, and the peculiarity of discount mortgages offered online being what it was, the company was quickly overwhelmed.

So, what happened?  Did the founders ponder the data?  Think about talent strategy?  Run endless spreadsheets?  Set meetings in order to plan?  Call a board meeting?


They made decisions.

Hire 5 people. Set pricing at x. Weed out bad applications by doing y.  It was all heady, seat of your pants decision making that was grounded in a strong appreciation for what had to be done and for the business model they thought would win.  There was no “stop and study it.”  It was “study it as we go.”

The greatest entrepreneurs, therefore, occupy the pinnacle of the pyramid even as the pyramid is being constructed.  They sit on the scaffold, not on the bricks.  They are hypothesis driven.  They are (and I apologize in advance for going here) fundamentally inductive in their reasoning.

In short, they are action-oriented.

Contrast that with today’s executive management culture.  Executives across industries lock into linear thought processes.  They go from data, to facts, to insights, to risks, to options, to strategies, and ultimately to a hypothesis.  And, then, they may or may not occupy the pinnacle.   They are fundamentally deductive.  

They have that luxury.

In short, they are, on average, ponderous and cautious.

What do big companies get wrong in their leadership cultures that entrepreneurs get right? 

This is a story of incentives and how we respond to them.

Most of this difference comes down to the old adage about “messing up a good thing.”

For the entrepreneur, the “good thing” is still out there in the primordial soup of opportunity.  She has to act in order to realize opportunity.

For the executive, the “good thing” is the here and now.  It’s far too often the salary and bonus that accrue from just nudging the controls this way or that.  The upside of taking a risk is minute in comparison to the downside of losing power, position, or prestige.

And, that is what large companies ultimately get wrong.  They provide incentives for executives to protect their position, to manage risk vs. capturing opportunity, and ultimately to guard the status quo.  Big, strategic decisions come with millions of dollars of study and sign off not because it’s necessary for large companies, but rather because no one really wants to sit on the pinnacle.

Entrepreneurs know that they get paid when they act.

Executives often get paid not to act. Often, they get paid very well, in fact.

This simple fact is evidenced by the bloated cash positions on some companies’ balance sheets (coupled with latent debt capacity) these days. Corporate executives, faced with decisions whether to invest or wait, have the luxury of waiting.

In the worst of cases, corporate executives earn rents based on time.  “The longer I’m in the seat, the more money I’ll make.”

In almost every case, entrepreneurs create value based on action. “I’d better hire/build/sell or I’m out of cash.”

Would that a little bit of the latter mindset could seep into the former.

So What?  

We are all strategists.  Given that, we should all beware the “study further” cul de sac and focus on a healthy approach to action orientation.

Taking some tips from entrepreneurs, a few things come to mind that might bridge the gap between endless study and deductive processing of strategic problems and efficient, inductive decision making.  These are applicable for you as an individual professional and for the highest level executive leading the most complex multi-national.

  • Know what you (or your business lines) are about – I never met an entrepreneur who didn’t have a strong view of what his business is.  I have met, dare I say, thousands of corporate employees who couldn’t tell you the financials of their company and, worse, how their job connected to them. I’ve also, sadly, met numerous executives whose point of view on what they or their company is about amounts to meeting a budget connected to a bonus structure even when they know it is destroying value (again, rents vs. value).


  • Size up your pyramid – Study is a good thing.  Finely considered decisions can be fantastically successful.  The dirty little secret is that a healthy proportion of momentarily considered action is also successful in creating value.  Know when enough study and analysis is enough.  If you are building a pyramid, know whether you really need one made of bricks that will last 10,000 years or one made of Legos.  This matters.


  • Match pace of decision making with pace of business – If you and your competitors are slow moving, perhaps you have more time.  Or, perhaps, you have an opportunity to outrun them.  During the dot com era, the frenetic pace of decisions was matched to the land grab that was the growth of the Internet.


  • Occupy the pinnacle – Every strategic act worthy of study is worthy of a decision.  This is true whether you are thinking about your personal career or thinking about how to steer your business.  Be willing to occupy the pinnacle of the pyramid; and remember, in the immortal lyrics of Rush‘s “Freewill,” if you choose not to decide…You still have made a choice.


  • Know what incentives you are giving people– My final shot is at incentive structures.  Do your company’s or your personal incentives (and by that, I don’t mean bonuses, I mean the holistic set of incentives a given person has) drive you toward action or inaction.  Do people get rewarded for taking action, or for avoiding it? Do you?  Whether you are an HR executive or a Board member, build a healthy appreciation for opportunity costs into your incentive system.  Some incentive structures, if shareholders knew the behaviors they engender, would embarrass the board members and executives who enact them.


By bridging the gap between the “corporate risk manager’s” strategic approach and the entrepreneur’s approach, we can learn a lot about how to inject a little more action into our approach.

Occupy the pinnacle of strategy.

RAND Corp’s 12 Instability Factors and Your Organization

Earlier today, I came across this tweet by RAND Corporation.

It got me thinking about how organizations are, in a lot of ways, a lot like countries.

When we think and talk about change leadership within organizations, we are typically dealing with scaled down versions of political environments; and some of the lessons related to counter-insurgency and political change can and do apply directly.

RAND’s 12 factors that “generate and sustain unstable environments” are actually quite applicable for large organizations thinking about undertaking transformational change (or, to be honest, merely looking to stabilize performance).

Let’s do a little bit of mental ju jitsu, and replace “violent extremists” with “change resisters” and then see how this idea stacks up.  Let’s take them in turn and I’ll comment on how the factor translates to corporate change programs…

Factor 1. The level of external support for violent extremist groups…OR, The level of external support for change resister groups.

Doubtless, the level of external justification for individuals to be resistant to a given change agenda is a key indicator of how likely change is to happen.  This is the reason that role modeling by executives and peers to a given group undergoing a change is a critical input to the change leadership puzzle. Whenever a person in an organization (for the sake of argument let’s say it’s the finance function of your company) can go and get “mentorship” from outside of his or her group from other influential people who disdain or downplay the change…that person will be much more likely to resist.  It’s academic.

Factor 2. The extent to which the government is considered illegitimate or ineffective by the population

Another highly applicable factor is how legitimate leadership, particularly senior leaders and direct change leaders, is believed to be by the rank and file.  The “population trust” factor can’t be ruled out when thinking about how to lead change.

Factor 3.  The presence of tribal or ethnic indigenous populations with a history of resisting state rule

At first glance, this sounds like an anthropological factor that really is best left to the tribes of Afghanistan; but when you think about it, this might be the most relevant factor.  If you have ever tried to penetrate a corporate fiefdom ruled by a real tribal leader, you know this analogy is real.  If your organizational culture revolves around cults, fiefdoms, empires, and turf; you will undoubtedly encounter much more change resistance.

Factor 4. The levels of poverty and inequality

Change is hard.  It’s a lot harder when the senior executives live like kings and the rank and file live like doormats.  People notice.  A high level of inequality OR a high level of senior management secrecy about inequality will severely handicap efforts to change or stabilize a company.

Factor 5.  The extent to which local government is fragmented, weak, or vulnerable

This one goes to the tribal points outlined on point 3, but is actually the opposite.  If your organization has exceptionally weak local or frontline leadership; then people don’t get the word.  They are left to their own devices.  That’s a recipe for slow change at best.

Factor 6. The existence of ungoverned space

This is an interesting one when it comes to organizational analogies. In an organization undergoing significant change; my mantra is “everybody plays.”  Why?  Because when some organizational space is left out of the mix, people can either (1) reference it as a reason to resist as a matter of fairness or (2) flock to it.  

Factor 7. The presence of multiple violent, nonstate groups competing for power…OR let’s call them competing initiatives or agendas for change

Interestingly enough this one plays out in many organizations every day (not the violence…the competing agendas).  If your organization has an entrepreneurial leadership culture, this can be a frustrating downside of it.  Individual leaders’ competing agendas get in the way of the macro change and stabilization agenda; and you fail as a result.

Factor 8. The level of government restriction on political or ideological dissent

So, clamps on free thinking can be a bad thing.  Interestingly, factor 7 is the yang to this yin.  The government is overly restrictive, so people resist change.  This is a matter of trust.  When Dear Leader tells you what to do or else but you don’t trust Dear Leader; you go looking for a way to sabotage Dear Leader’s agenda.

Factor 9. The level of consistency and/or agreement between a violent extremist group’s goals and the ideology of target populations

This one seems sort of simple:  If people agree that resistance is the best answer, and they do so in great numbers, then your change program is sunk.

Factor 10. The extent to which population and extremist groups perceive faltering government commitment to a counterinsurgency campaign

In corporate-speak, this one reads “the extent to which your senior executives fail to follow through on change commitments.”  Might seem easy, but it’s a failure mode found every day in every organization.  Senior leaders find something more interesting to do than to drive change day to day, week to week, and month to month.  People see the lack of attention and become resisters.

Factor 11. The capacity, resources, and expertise of violent extremist groups

This one is a bit tricky to draw as an analogy to corporate change and stabilization programs.  Certainly change resisters have to have the capacity to resist; but a lot of times it’s just about clout; and that’s why factor 12 is the kicker…

Factor 12.  The pervasiveness of social networks

Absolutely. If the social influencers in your organization aren’t the same people as the change leaders, then you probably have a problem.  It’s very important not only to co-opt the hierarchy of an organization, but also the social networks by getting to the thought leaders first.

In many organizations, the people who make change go aren’t the 35 year old MBAs but rather the 55 year old shop foremen.  Social networks matter.  What RAND is likely getting at is the ability for information and protection to flow below the government radar in unstable countries.   I’m saying the same thing matters in unstable companies.

So What? 

I write this because the language and approaches to counter-insurgency as they have developed over the past 15 years are both directly applicable to leading change in a given organization.  Each of these factors, perhaps with the exception of factor 11 which I had to squint at to really see a link, relates directly to your own probability of leading successful change in your organization.

Keep this in mind next time you think change is easy!


Belling the Cat Part 1: ISIS Root Causes

If you follow anything around U.S. foreign policy, you have probably seen the highly publicized comments from Marie Harf on how the root causes of the U.S. State Department cannot “kill our way” to victory over proponents of an Islamic state.

Here’s the video:


Steering clear of the politics that tend to bloom around comments of this type, Harf’s talking points are a striking instance of strategic leapfrogging.

First off, Ms. Harf is in all likelihood “right” about needing to address the root causes of ISIS’ ease of recruiting.

Second off, Ms. Harf is probably right about what the root causes may be.

However, her talking points ignore the reality of today, where ISIS is already marauding.  She leapfrogs to high concept and ignores low reality.

This happens often when unsavory or necessary tactics get in the way of high minded strategic nirvana.

Don’t want to talk about the ugly business of killing people who are, themselves, killing at will?

Start talking about how the root causes of the killing are in the socioeconomic dynamics in the free world and in the communities the killers reside within; and how it’s important to solve those…

This is a classic example of a speaker spouting high minded (and probably “right”) strategic principles to skirt the need for low-minded (and probably “necessary”) tactics.

Ms. Harf has been beaten up in the media plenty for her talking points, and in my opinion rightly so…  She is propagating a narrative that is essentially a redux of the old “belling the cat” fable.

To wit, from Wikipedia:

“The fable concerns a group of mice who debate plans to nullify the threat of a marauding cat. One of them proposes placing a bell around its neck, so that they are warned of its approach. The plan is applauded by the others, until one mouse asks who will volunteer to place the bell on the cat. All of them make excuses. The story is used to teach the wisdom of evaluating a plan not only on how desirable the outcome would be, but also on how it can be executed. It provides a moral lesson about the fundamental difference between ideas and their feasibility, and how this affects the value of a given plan.”

Strategists have to keep practicality in mind

Or else, even when they are right, they can be wrong.




8 Things Your Consultants Say About You

The presence of consultants in your organization is a powerful indicator of your strength or weakness as a leader.

It’s basically impossible to move through life without using a consultant. From the haircut you get to the type of shoes you buy to the grand strategy for your organization, chances are you have tapped knowledge outside your own head in order to inject perspective, organize choices and expedite success.

But, in the business world, the presence of consulting talent in an organization provides an interesting barometer on the organization itself.

The “right” consulting model

Transient talent is a useful thing for both efficiency and effectiveness. Even in the most autonomous leadership cultures, adopting temporary talent can be a make or break proposition.

Think about the merchant shipping industry. The captain of a ship is exactly that–the absolute authority at sea.

Yet, captains readily relinquish their authority to harbor pilots every day in every part of the world. The harbor pilot is a consultant of a specific kind: One who has

very specific knowledge useful in a very specific circumstance during the life of the ship. The harbor pilot is far more versed in the navigation of his specific harbor than any oceangoing captain could be.

His experience allows for safer navigation of the port regardless of conditions that might not show up on a chart or radar. And, while the captain maintains command of the ship, he or she smartly relinquishes control to the pilot as a matter of course (or, in many places, law).

Thus, the captain brings a pilot aboard to ensure effective navigation with superior knowledge and talent; but not to replace his own command or the need for talented crew members at all times. The pilot boards incoming ships as they approach the port and leaves outgoing ships as they leave.

He’s a consultant.

Such use of transient talent is the “right” model of management consulting: Specific talent applied judiciously and precisely.

But, you and I both know that isn’t always the reason or approach to retaining consultants.  The way consulting talent is engaged–and the objectives for engaging it–says a lot about the executive engaging the consultant.

The interpretation is made by the organization–and that matters.


8 things your consultants say about you without using words…

First, The Good.  To your organization, effective use of outside talent signals some pretty cool things; such as:

  • You are seeking the right knowledge at the right time: Engaging consultants is sometimes an admission that you and your organization can’t possibly know it all. So, you hire consultants who bring sources of knowledge to renew your own.
  • Your recognize that time is of the essence: You know that without augmentation, your existing staff may not have the bandwidth or tools and approaches to managed a rapidly paced project. So, you bring on management talent in a bounded manner to get “over the hump.” There’s no time to waste.
  • You care about developing your organization: You believe that development matters. You recognize that your team and organization can benefit from seeing new ways of doing things. So, you provide outside support to them as a means of developing them along in their careers. They get to see by doing alongside those who have been there and done that.
  • You are good at managing SG&A expense: Just as it would be impractical for every oceangoing captain to learn the intricacies of every possible port he or she will visit, no organization needs to staff against every contingency. Hiring talented consultants during peak times or against peak needs shows that you value great talent, but also solid bottom line performance. You are willing to pay a premium in the moment; but are good at getting lean and mean without having to fire people.

The consultants in your midst may say these things about you; and I hope they do.

However, there’s just as much a chance that consultants represent some brokenness around you…


Here’s the bad, along with a little more narrative on some ways to sniff it out.  

Done inartfully, engaging consultants can telegraph to your organization that:

  • You lack confidence: You lack confidence in your professional capability. You lack vision. The desire for “more study” and slow playing–a result of vacillating indecisiveness–is sometimes an inefficiency that consultants thrive in. Worse yet, your organization may get the sense that you require the ego-stroking presence of high profile consultants in order to make it through your day. Finally, there’s the potential signal that you lack confidence in existing staff. Consultants can feed off of a lack of confidence in very dangerous ways. If the last several consulting engagements you contracted basically confirmed what you already knew, then take a hint.  If your trusted consultant (or any corporate confidant, really) spends more time massaging you than working the problem, you have a further hint that your confidence is being played.
  • You lack action orientation: Bringing in a consulting team to analyze the un-analyzeable in the name of seeking cover with your senior management and board is only sometimes okay. If you are in a position to “bet the company” then taking a deep breath and seeking a second opinion is fine; but you’d better let the organization know you are choosing to over-study the situation; because risk averse navel gazing is contagious. How many times do you hire a specific consultant just because they are the one your boss or the board will listen to? To a degree that’s just good politics, but sometimes it’s politics spelled C.Y.A.
  • Your talent strategy is off: It goes without saying that if you continuously engage outsiders at an arms-length premium to do recurring, especially generalist work; then you are probably missing an opportunity to upgrade your own talent base and save money to boot. When outsiders get all the sweet gigs, your inside talent base gets grumpy. Keep that in mind next time you engage a consultant to do work that could be a stretch for your insiders. Also, watch out for instances where you constantly re-engage “retired” employees you haven’t been able to back-fill. It may be an indicator that your talent strategy is bumbling.
  • You have a bad place to work: This is the bottom of the barrel. You have the Las Vegas of workplaces. People may visit and try to get rich, but nobody really wants to live there because of its false front and seedy underside. How many times do you attempt to hire the consultant but get rebuffed? How many times have outsiders with a good taste of the inside of your organization voluntarily re-upped as a full time employee. Worse yet, how many of your consultants have recommended (non desperate) people to come work for you without collecting a search fee? If the answer to these questions is “few or none,” your consultants may be feeding off of an awful company environment. You might have an organization that is a “nice place to visit, but you wouldn’t want to work there.”

So, there you have it…8 things that consultants may be signaling to your organization.  The good is good. The bad is ugly.

I recommend the good.

A parting thought…

As someone who has scoped, negotiated, and managed many millions of dollars worth of consulting projects and engaged consultants and advisors for millions more, I clearly believe that management consultants can provide exemplary value as hired guns aimed at specific, impact-oriented targets.

It just requires a high professional standard on both sides of the engagement.

It’s important to know what your consultant may be saying about you, if only through the words of the observers in your organization.

Watch out for the bad stuff…

What’s Your White Whale?

The types of goals we set, and the manner in which we pursue them, have consequences for us and for the people around us.

“…to the last I grapple with thee; from hell’s heart I stab at thee; for hate’s sake I spit my last breath at thee…”

– Captain Ahab, in Moby Dick by Herman Melville

And like that, a captain lost his life, a ship, and all men aboard save one left to tell the tale.

Call him Ishmael.

Focus, intensity, and drive are all fantastic things. Identifying a goal and driving toward it can differentiate a professional in the earliest stages of their career. Such drive and focus is valuable for teams, organizations, and yes, families.

But it is in how we define our goals that we establish our course and set sail.

Sometimes…sometimes we choose goals that–when played out–are destructive to us and to those around us. They are outwardly worthy, and inwardly virulent.

The more senior we are, the more influence we have, the more damage we can do.

Ahab did this when he let a blinding, to-the-marrow hatred of a monstrous white whale cause him to lead his men to the edge of the earth and ultimately to death. He took his ship off its profitable whaling mission to pursue an obsession, a blood vendetta against a big mammal that took his leg.

Of course, you or I would never do that, right? Ahab is fiction.

Well, not really.

The way we define our goals–or help execute the goals others define for us–defines us; and the more driven we are in achieving misguided goals, the more destructive we can be. We might not kill our crew, but we could very well kill an organization, a partnership, or a marriage.

Take a moment and think: Do you harbor a goal like Ahab’s lust for killing the white whale?

Worse yet, have you, as a board member, senior executive, or manager, provided people with incentives to pursue a white whale goal?

A white whale goal is one of two things: In its first and simplest guise it’s an obsession. It is a goal that is so deeply held and so exclusively pursued that its pursuit alone is destructive to relationships, damaging to professionalism, and ultimately distracting from real performance. A foolish, simpleminded pursuit of money, power, position, prestige, image, “winning,” or–wait for it–the moral or intellectual high ground are all examples.

Yes, that last one is a doozy that we too often forget or forgive. Self-righteousness blows up as many relationships as most any other thing listed.

In its second guise, a white whale goal can be a misguided goal propagated by proxy, where boards and senior leaders provide a framework of thinking (for example “grow profits”) without guidance on and transparency in boundaries, value, or values; or with specious accounting and accountability.

This second version of the white whale can lead both to brutal decisions by middle managers “just doing their jobs” and to baffling decisions in the ranks where people struggle for clarity. All the while the board and senior managers maintain the real innocence of propagating “good” goals. Or, at least, they maintain plausible deniability.

The epitome of these two types of white whales playing out–an obsession that leads to a vicious goal by proxy–is the assassination of St. Thomas Beckett of Canterbury.

King Henry II, obsessed with the church as an interference, is reported to have said “will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?”

After which, of course, somebody did; to the ignorance of the historical significance of the act.

But, the King didn’t order the martyrdom of a future saint…Did he?

You as a senior executive didn’t really order the curtailing of investment in pursuit of current earnings…Did you?

You didn’t handicap the sales team by introducing turgid administrative tasks in the name of greater openness and transparency…Did you?

You didn’t order leaders to take unacceptable safety and fire risk by curtailing costly planned outages and maintenance…Did you?

Surely, there are honest-to-goodness unintended consequences; and then there are white whales.  Sometimes they are hard to tell apart. Foolish or obsessive pursuit and propagation is the sin qua non of the white whale.

Remember Enron?

Consider the Enron scandal. The tragedy of Enron was equal parts a criminal lack of professionalism (which has been well publicized and rises to the level of obsession for some people involved) and a broad based propagation of and adherence to financial frameworks and incentives that many people in the ranks knew made no sense–misguided goals.

This second part gets missed and dismissed, especially as the Enron case recedes into memory as a quaint blip preceding the global financial crisis of 2007-’08.

The second aspect–the misguided goal set–is actually the most important aspect of the Enron case for professionals to consider these days.

A good example of the incentive issue was where “mark to market” thinking led leaders to be paid handsomely on the modeled Net Present Value of development projects, but not on the actual fulfillment of the projects themselves. Baffling? Yes. Still, senior management–operating within a framework endorsed by auditors, consultants, and board members–defined the goals. Those goals played a big part in destroying the company.

Sure, a few Enron employees went to jail and many professionals were sullied forever; but the true “crime” that gets missed is how top down incentives drove otherwise professional people toward behaviors that they wouldn’t have even paid themselves for.  They were white whale goals acted on by proxy.

That is perhaps the best test of a white whale by proxy. Would you pay yourself to fulfill the incentive set you have?

White whale goals by proxy are usually present when you hear people lament that they are “just doing their job,” or “doing what they are told,” or “doing what they get paid to do,” or in the worst of the worst cases “protecting the company.”

Massive autocracies and ignominious genocides stand on the shoulders of white whale goals by proxy, particularly when they are proxy to an obsessed leader. Let’s not participate in or propagate them.

What do some simpler ones look like?

To keep this closer to home, here are a few modern goals that can become white whales in our professional lives, and a brief explanation of why:

1. A superlative image and “personal brand” – The phony focus on image in the mold of “fake it ’til you make it.” If pursued as an end in itself, vs. an outcome of a life of substance, then…well, it’s a deleterious focus on a goal that is ultimately not merely self interested, but selfish in a harmful sense.

2. Great pains for small wins – The dominance of the clean desk, starched shirts, pursuit of dominance on every point in the negotiation. Basically, this is idealizing stuff that doesn’t matter. In WWII U.S. Army slang, foolish adherence to critical standards on things that didn’t matter to the mission was known as chickenshit. I’m not sure what it is called now, but whatever it is it’s damaging to the mission and morale.

3. Rent-seeking – Seeking wealth without the creation of wealth. Placing defense of title, position, and income ahead of principle and value. Jerry Pournelle’s Iron Law of Bureaucracy puts in pithy words this white whale; and provides an explanation for countless managers’ sometimes oddball behaviors: They defend the bureaucracy at the expense of the mission. It’s a classic white whale. Similarly, acting purely on incentives without regard to the value they create (or destroy) can be a white whale goal as outlined in the Enron case. This is often the case when incentives are based on individual drivers (like revenue growth or headcount or output) in isolation that systemically create no value.

4. Temporal goal misalignment – Addressing the “now” without a focus on the “later” or vice versa. How often do we see short term decisions made that have a readily measurable, net negative long term impact; but that are characterized and lauded as magnificent wins. So, you closed the deal and got paid. Was it a good deal for shareholders and employees–the people who live with the longer term decisions? Interestingly, the opposite is the case as well: Many bankrupt companies lie foundered on the rocks of “long term investment.” How often do we see 5-year plans that lack a 1 or 2-year plan component?  The white whale lies in the lack of explicit balance.

5. Vengeance – I’m just going to go ahead and list it because, well, I started with Captain Ahab; and this was his issue. Pursuing personal vendettas, particularly those that drag your organization, family, or friends along with you; is the ultimate in white whale thinking. 9 times out of 10, the bitter pursuit of revenge against other people or other organizations only serves to take your eye off the ball. To be clear, this doesn’t mean simply the pursuit of crushing vengeance a la Ahab. It can also be as simple as an overweening need for one-upmanship or the constant need to be seen as ahead of the object of your bitterness. All this is wasted motion when it comes to life and performance.

So what?

Knowing whether you are pursuing a white whale is tough. Generally, the white whale looks like a worthy goal to the person obsessed with it.People who are genuinely obsessed can’t generally be reasoned with. But, they can be removed from their position…and, that’s worth pondering.

The best way to spot a white whale is to lay out the “True North” that everyone agrees to–what winning really looks like from a fiduciary, professional, and values standpoint; and then to identify how far off that azimuth your immediate goals are.

White whales pop out easily at that point as twisted and torqued visions of winning. They link to True North via paragraphs of logical backflips instead of a sentence fragment of concise clarity.

Like any other blind spot, these goals require reflection on your own part to spot. They also require willingness to tolerate a person or two in your midst who will challenge your view, your goals, your passions, and your obsessions. That person might be a trusted friend, a mentor, a pastor, or–if you are lucky–a spouse. In a really functional team, it can also be a subordinate or a peer.

In any event, you have to listen to them.

The gist of Melville’s story about Ahab and his hatred of the whale was that Ahab destroyed everything and everyone around him in pursuit of a definitively odd goal: Revenge against the single whale that took his leg.

There were many other whales in the ocean.

But, the white whale did him and his crew in. No–strike that–Ahab’s obsession with a white whale goal did it.

Don’t let a white whale–yours or somebody else’s–do you in.

What are some examples of white whales from your own professional, political, or personal lives?