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What Andrew Luck just taught us about protecting top talent

Andrew Luck’s retirement shows that if you don’t protect the talent in your organization, you won’t have it for long.

Geoff Wilson

Andrew Luck announced his retirement Saturday night.  Luck, the intriguingly smart and fantastically gifted quarterback of the Indianapolis Colts, basically explained that the constant cycle of injury and recovery he has gone through for the past few years had ground him down emotionally and physically.

This is a particularly personal story for me.  I am not one who is a big fan of individual football players.  It’s a team sport, and I enjoy the team aspect.  So, let me just put it this way:  Andrew Luck is probably my favorite football player of all time.

Now, there are those who disagree with Luck’s decision.  Some claim it’s a silly financial decision–Luck is leaving nine figures of future earnings on the table.  Some claim it’s a cowardly thing to do–football players always have to pay the butcher’s bill, and Luck’s “quitting” young speaks to his softness of character.

For those people, I’ll only say this:  Let the person who has taken snaps in the NFL with a lacerated kidney and peed blood afterward be the one who judges Luck.   I could stand on my soapbox and talk about “playing hurt” with the best of them, but I’ve witnessed Luck’s NFL career, and the guy has earned the right to make whatever decision he wants.

Andrew Luck is a generational talent. Unfortunately, the Indianapolis Colts teams that Andrew Luck led were built to exploit his talents, not to protect them.  So, the Colts had this big, strong, fast, smart quarterback who could pull off the most uncanny plays and shake off the most vicious of hits; and they placed him behind an offensive line that for years could at best be referred to as a “patchwork” of journeyman players.  The running backs and receivers that Luck has played with were fair at best, and absolute fill-ins at worst.

The Colts took Luck’s greatest strengths–his ability to take hits and still raise the level of everyone around him–for granted.   Luck’s toughness and tendency to compliment players for making good hits against him have been well documented in his “mic’d up” segments.  And, as it often goes in the NFL, the tougher you are, the more likely you are to be injured.  Luck has suffered through a litany of injuries.

Zak Keefer has the most noteworthy tweet on Luck’s injury history today.  The physical toll on Luck through 6 seasons reads like someone who has been in a major car accident…not somebody who has actually played the most difficult position in all of sports at the highest level despite and concurrently with these injuries.  

The Colts organization is smarting from the retirement of its young superstar quarterback. Colts fans booed Luck as he left the field for the last time after his retirement was leaked during their preseason game.  Still, I’m going to just put it this way:

The Colts organization and leadership is getting EXACTLY what they deserve.  

The waste of a generational talent is a sad thing to see, but it was entirely foreseeable.  Luck was sacked 41 times in his 2012 rookie year.  That kind of pounding is psychologically withering to a quarterback more than almost any other position player because the quarterback has to have the confidence that he can focus on other things without having a sledgehammer swung at his chest on every play.   So, what should be the priority for the organization?  limit those sacks, right.

Luck was sacked an identical 41 times in 2016.  That’s four years later for the mathematically challenged.  The result is that Luck has had to come back from an awful set of injuries, with each comeback extracting a little bit of soul.

In Luck’s words, “it’s been unceasing and unrelenting…It’s taken my joy of this game away.”

Which leads me to the point of this post:  If you are an organizational leader who is leaning on a few star talents surrounded by a supporting cast of also-rans to “gut it out” on a daily basis, you are playing a very dangerous game.

Because when your top talent has had enough–when you have extracted enough of their soul by asking them to jump on yet another grenade dropped by a poor performing organization–it will be fully justified to go elsewhere.

You will get EXACTLY what you deserve.

And, if you aren’t doing this explicitly, it might be good to take a moment and reflect on whether you are doing this implicitly.  Take a look at the team you lead and ask whether you are leaning a bit too heavily on a talented few.  Take a look at the organization you lead and ask whether you are counting too much on a few talented teams to carry the rest of the organization.

Do this not because you have the time to do it.  Nobody does.  Do it because you can’t afford to grind your top talent down to a joyless nub.

Andrew Luck’s retirement is a cautionary tale to those executives who believe a little too much in the power of star talent.

What do you think?  How do you protect your star talent? 

(Photo credit to Clutchpoints.com)

The waiting is the hardest part

There is such a thing as strategic patience…

Geoff Wilson

I have a confession to make:

I’m impatient.  It’s a fundamental trait that I have wrestled with for years.  I’d love to think that I’m not alone and that it’s okay because other people are impatient, too, but the reality is that impatience is not okay.

Urgency is okay in most circumstances, but impatience?  Not really.

This reality has smacked me in the face HARD lately due to an adventure I’ve been on for the past 7 weeks.  A minor fall down some stairs left me with a torn quadriceps tendon.  It turns out that this type of injury is one that, while painful at its onset, is really a test of patience.  Following surgery a number of weeks ago I have been set aside, wings clipped and wheels idled, because I have not been able to bend my right leg.

Why?

Because this particular injury–a grafting of a very large tendon and muscle group back to the bony real estate of my kneecap–has to heal before I get to start rehabilitation. Waiting is actually the right thing to do. It’s excruciating.

And that, like many parts of life, brings to me a question:  While most of us want results and we want them now, is it often healthier to be patient? Is patience a strategic weapon?

Yes! Of course it is!  But we forget this so often.

I’ve witnessed executives wreck M&A negotiations by being impatient.  I’ve witnessed sales efforts scrapped by impatience.  I’ve witnessed promising innovations cast aside by–yep, you guessed it–impatient executives.  I’ve seen extremely valuable assets given away for a pittance by executives with a tyrannical urgency to do…something.

But, how do you know when waiting is actually the strategically correct position?

Usually, it’s the correct position when you know that things will sort.  In other words, if you have the luxury of time to wait to gain additional insight or maturity, then waiting is a strategic option that should be considered.  In most of the generic examples in my prior paragraph you see examples where the fear of missing out interjects to drive really bad decision making.

When in doubt, assess whether you have the ability to exercise a real option to wait.  It’s not always the right option, but it is one that should be on the table.

Sometimes, the time to be aggressive is after you’ve let things settle.

What do you think?

The strategic executive’s enduring dilemma

The hardest part about giving excellent advice is the hardest part about being an executive.

Geoff Wilson

One of the real disasters of the consulting profession is the consultant who really, sincerely, thinks he has it all figured out.  He’s the guy for whom no problem is unsolvable.  Usually, the advice on complex topics is distilled into “just” statements, like “just automate that process,” or “just downsize that organization.”

I have seen many, many seemingly impractical and amoral nuggets of advice emerge from otherwise smart, sincere people advising clients.  They often are packaged as “best practices” but ignore practicality.  In the worst of cases, they come from individuals who wouldn’t take the same risk with their own capital or reputations.  You know them…they are the consultants who give advice that looks like “acquire your way out of problems.” They like the big, provocative recommendation, but don’t appreciate the nitty gritty difficulty or bold-faced risk that their recommendations come with.  They just arm wave the risk away.

In forming a practical approach to strategic planning, I have found that the biggest challenge to strategic planning itself is the acknowledgement of the unknown or the un-experienced.  It is far, far easier to pose hypothetical assumptions about the world and then to claim them as true than it is to deal with the difficulties of reality as they are today.  What this challenge usually boils down to is lack of experience.  All too often, strategic advisors are brought in as a source of insight from a different perspective, and they end up marginalized (or, worse, cloistered with the CEO) because they simply don’t take the time to understand reality before pronouncing “solutions.”

This is where you end up with big but unworkable solutions to problems that genuinely require knowledge and care.  “Acquire your way out of the problem” is a great example.  It sounds great, but often ignores the compounded risks of acquisitions–valuation, integration, customer attrition, etc.  Once those risks are taken into account, an acquisition often looks like a roll of the dice; and it has to be more than that.  It has to be grounded in some amount of understanding of how the acquiring company will “money out” the deal.  This usually requires more than a passing understanding of the acquiror and the target.  And still, the advice is often given with neither.

So what?  Well, the answer is simple, but hard:  Experience bases take time to develop, both in employees and in advisors.  Build them, and then don’t forget them when forming big, audacious plans. Moreover, the tagline of this post is perhaps the most important one:  Executives suffer from the “big and easy” disease at a rate that is nearly as high as top consulting strategists.  From the cloister of the c-suite, it can be easy to gloss over real practical issues.

So, before making that next big pronouncement about your company’s strategy, or before taking action on the logically founded but inexperienced advice of a consultant, just remember this quote from J.R.R. Tolkien’s writing:

“Let him not vow to walk in the dark, who has not seen the nightfall.”

It’s a great, distilled “what just a minute” for any advisor or executive. Let us all acknowledge where our experience is lacking before we make drastic proclamations.  That is the hardest part of giving excellent advice.  And, it’s one of the harder parts of being an executive.

What do you think?  

Is anything too precious to automate?

What do you do that you wouldn’t want the machine to do?

Geoff Wilson

I get up in the morning and press a button to brew a cup of coffee.  I talk to a device to have it play the right news, then the right music.  I look at curated news feeds to understand what is going on in the world.

The question is:  Is there anything too precious to automate?

Maybe more to the point, are there aspects of your profession that should NEVER be automated?

This post is inspired by a podcast I listened to recently that was expounding on the value of email automation software that could send individualized email to your “target clients” from your own email account.

Sounds brilliant, right? Just like a toaster, you can put in the raw material and press the lever…and out pops a finished product.

Only, the podcast was targeted toward consulting professionals with individual or boutique footprints…and it got me thinking.  In a “trusted” profession, is it ever worth the risk of committing the mail merge faux pas?

You know what I’m talking about.  In my inbox today, I have spam addressed to “Wilson” as though it’s my first name.  I have received emails that start with Dear [Client Name].  I have, just today, dealt with a person who insisted upon copying their CRM software dropbox address as a CC to my email.

These are all just now…today!

In a world where we can automate almost anything, from writing personal emails to cooking gourmet meals, is anything still sacred enough to do manually?

I think so…that’s why I write this blog.  That’s why I write my own emails (typos and all).  And that’s why I think that a professional mindset requires a personal touch.

Now, excuse me while I tweet this out.

What do you think?  What’s too sacred to automate in your professional life? 

 

Real dirt on your uniform

Sure, you want to show how hard you worked. But sometimes it’s better to just do the work.

Geoff Wilson

 “The optics aren’t good.” 

Ugh.  That phrase is the start of something bad in many circumstances.  Sometimes, bad optics and a good outcome is much better than a really pretty but really awful outcome.

Allow me a moment for two anecdotes…

Back in my college football days, I had a teammate who was caught rubbing dirt on his uniform after a game. He was not a guy who saw the field during games, but he really wanted to show that he had been in on the action.  One of the equipment managers noticed him squat near the sideline and pick up some dirt clods to rub on his uniform.

Voila!  Instant football hero.

Fast forward to my days at a top-tier consulting firm. In the middle of a hard-core operations strategy project in the electric power sector, we needed to run a workshop on site at a power plant.  The issue was that–safety standards being what they are–we needed to wear steel-toed boots.  So, of course all the white-shoe consultants go out and buy new steel-toed boots.  Except, one of the partners, convinced that his new boots were a bad signal, decided to spend some time scuffing his up enough to be inconspicuous on site.

Voila! Instant operations veteran.

These two stories are important reminders of the old adage that you can’t judge a book by its cover.

They are also a reminder that people will often go to great lengths and waste great amounts of time and energy to “look the part.”  They worry so much about the “optics” of a clean uniform that they actually go out and seek a dirt clod to rub on their uniform.

The same is true in the business world.  Often, the 100-page PowerPoint deck is simply a dirt clod, or a set of scuffed shoes.  It’s the way consultants, managers, and analysts show that they are doing real work–even when they aren’t.

I’ll just ask you this:  Is the work you are doing actual, real work to solve a problem for a customer, or are you just digging up a dirt clod to rub on your uniform?

Because sometimes a dirty uniform just means you fell down a lot.

What do you think? 

So smart you don’t have to listen…

Lack of listening betrays lack of empathy.

Geoff Wilson

 Are you too smart to listen?

You know that feeling: It’s that feeling that you already know the end of the discussion, so you don’t really have to be patient enough to listen?  Or, maybe it’s that feeling that your position of authority means you don’t have to listen.

It gets to you.  It especially gets to you if you don’t watch out for it.

Recently, I spent some time alongside a few consultants from a “top tier” firm after being away from them for quite a while.  What struck me was their lack of focus on others…their lack of listening.  It seemed that the lack of listening was built into the cultural model that comes with competitive upper tier strategy consulting. I remember it, but I hadn’t “felt” it for a while.

That model is built around being smart.  It’s built around knowing the facts better than the client.  It’s built around being more assertive than your next best peer (so that your superiors know you know what they don’t know).

And, here’s the rub…  In today’s age, it’s exceptionally hard to be the smartest person in the room. Access to information is quite broad. Demand for cultural sensitivity is commonplace. Skepticism of strategic platitudes is growing. This means that a pretty much nobody is smart enough not to listen.

And so, I’ll say it this way: You are not too smart to listen.  You may think you are, but you aren’t.  And, that guy or gal who sits back in the room and listens for a while?  Just remember that still waters run deep.  Honor it.  Don’t throw it away with the old “he didn’t add anything” trope.

Professionals who lack consistent ability and discipline to listen usually lack empathy in most other parts of their professional profile.  Which brings me to the point of this post:  Too smart to listen is all too often too smart to actually lead.

What do you think about that?

The hobgoblin of business strategists

If your strategy can’t be wrong, it’s not right.

Geoff Wilson

Business strategy, like any real strategic pursuit, is fundamentally ambiguous.  It involves estimating the future along many axes–regulatory policies, competitive behavior, customer tastes, supply shocks, organizational zeal, and investor requirements are just a few.

Ambiguity has a terrible consequence for some senior management teams and most strategy consultants: It leads them to adopt a style of communication and assertion that is unassailable.  You’ve probably seen it:  A request for a recommendation for what to do in the face of a possible change in trade policy turns into a long explanation from your consultant on how “it depends.” On the way to trying to be completely right, many of today’s management strategists turn to arguments that can’t be wrong, and an argument about ambiguous things that can’t be wrong is a pseudoargument.

Famous philosopher-scientist Karl Popper had this comment to describe the phenomenon:

In so far as a scientific statement speaks about reality, it must be falsifiable; and in so far as it is not falsifiable, it does not speak about reality.

So if you are a top manager who likes to resort to platitudes and spin vs. direction and argument, Popper would say you aren’t actually confronting reality, and confronting reality is the first order of business for any leader or adviser.

How does this actually look in the real world?  I think the best way to see it is to look for arguments that can’t possibly be wrong no matter the evidence placed in front of you. If your management strategist tells you that restructuring an industry via an aggressive M&A agenda is the right strategy, and you say “but valuations are too high” to only get the response that “this means M&A is the right thing to do because everybody is already seeing the value,” then your management strategist might be engaging in an un-falsifiable strategic argument.

A strategic argument must be falsifiable a priori.  That is, you must be able to say in which states of the world you might be wrong when the strategy is built, not after.  Anybody can tell you why a strategy was wrong once it encounters the real world; but if you can’t say what makes your strategy wrong, you probably don’t have a strategy (or at least a sound method for defining the strategy) in the first place.

That’s why strategies that only focus on inputs are often wrong: They are not falsifiable.  “Innovate” says the strategist, or “become more productive,” or “hire better talent.”  Those are all great strategic inputs, but they don’t survive the falsifiability test.  How about these:

  • Innovate in the personalized medicine space to meet a current need for cystic fibrosis therapy
  • Become more productive in our pipeline repair process to regain lost capacity to serve existing customers
  • Hire better talent at CEO to avoid management platitudes and ensure sound strategy

See what I mean?  The comments above are falsifiable in states of the world where (1) there is no need for CF therapies, (2) there is no need for capacity to serve customers, and (3) the CEO understands the need for falsifiable business strategy. Strategy is an argument, and ideally it’s a scientific argument. But for an argument to be scientific, it must be precise enough to be wrong when presented with countervailing evidence.  In short, your business strategy must be falsifiable.

Try it out:  Ask yourself what your strategy is, and then test whether you can envision a future where it is wrong.  If you can, then you are probably standing on solid ground. If you can’t?  Well, you are probably engaging in pseudoscience.  This is the hobgoblin of top management consultants and senior managers of all stripes.

If your strategy can’t be wrong, it’s not right.

What do you think?  Do you see “strategies” that are merely platitudes disguised as science? 

Strategy is hard when you’re scared

Thinking long is hard when things are short.

Geoff Wilson

Have you ever been in a circumstance where short-term shocks completely derail long-term plans?  You might see it in your family life when an illness strikes, or in your professional life when the loss of a customer leads to wholesale panic. On average, we are poorly prepared to stay the course during adversity.  We get defensive.  We get scared.

Part of this is a fact of our minds:  We narrow our focus during times of strife.  When life gets short, we close our ranks; we narrow our circles of friends.  When life is long again, we expand our horizons and think big.  I wrote about that a while back in this blog post.  In it, I outlined how shared vision of the future prevents small thinking.

In this case, however, I am posing the question a little more narrowly:

Can you be strategic when you are scared?

You are scared of losing your job, so what do you do?  You are scared of an economic downturn, so how do you manage your business?  You are scared of…wait for it…being wrong, so how does that affect your decision making?

We all respond to fear a little differently.  Some of us throw the problem on our backs and carry on.  Some of us wait for somebody else to do it.  Some of us simply freeze.  The traditional model of fear reaction that most of us know is “fight or flight,” but I’m a fan of a model that was proposed by Dave Grossman in his book On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in Modern Society. In that book, Grossman outlines the four possible responses to fear: Fight, flight, posture, and submit.

We fight when we actively take on the fear with countering force or influence.

We flee when we actively avoid the fear by putting distance between us and it.

We posture when we attempt to show our strength without actually doing anything.

We submit when we open up our soft underbelly to the fear and let the fear win. We freeze.

And, here’s the rub…most of us are wired to posture. That is, we are wired to figuratively inflate our chest, yell a battle cry, and fire our guns into the air.  In a business context, we are wired to schedule more meetings, produce more presentations and analysis, and show our boss or board how much activity we are producing in the face of adversity.

We aren’t wired to fight.  We aren’t wired to resort to violent action in the face of adversity.  In the professional context, we aren’t wired to take action on winning that next customer when we’ve just lost one.

We are wired to posture…to explain the situation (sometimes violently) vs. solving it.

And, we are wired to submit…to become victims of circumstance…to freeze in the face of fear.

And, that makes strategy hard when fear is involved.  Keeping our eyes on a long-term strategy when short-term shocks upend the organization is the stuff of exemplary leaders.

We live in interesting times.  I have clients dealing with the bucking bronco of current trade policy uncertainty.  I have clients projecting the next recession constantly. I have clients worried about finding the talent required to carry out their aspirations. And of course, I have clients dealing with their own, very personal fears that relate to turbulence in their own personal lives.

I think the most basic piece of advice I can offer is this:  Despite what so many attempt to brand as “fearless leadership” or “fearless strategy,” nobody lacks fear.  There is no such thing.  Even the most emotionless automaton of a corporate executive is afraid of being exposed about something.  If you can admit your fear, and if you can determine whether your response to that fear is actually productive–am I fighting or fleeing vs. posturing or freezing–you will be far ahead of the game.

If you can keep your eyes on the horizon while you walk through a bed of thorns, you will set yourself apart from the pack.

Strategy is hard when you are scared.

What do you think:  Does fear get in the way of long term strategy? 

What the fear of missing out does to your business strategy

You don’t want to miss an opportunity, and that means you might miss them all.

Geoff Wilson

What does a smart strategist do with resources?

Most would say that “strategy” in and of itself depends on focusing the investment of resources against valuable ends. But what happens when you have too many possible directions to go with your resources?  Or, worse yet, what happens if you are afraid to focus on a critical few ends?

What if you suffer from an all too human factor:  the Fear Of Missing Out, or FOMO for short?

Here’s what happens:  Your fear of missing out exacts a price on your focus because every opportunity you pursue comes with a little bit of distraction.  Call it the fixed cost of opportunity pursuit: The need to organize, plan, and simply think about any given opportunity just to start it up.

To illustrate, assume that you have 100% of your mind to allocate.  Now imagine that any given opportunity you pursue comes with a 5% fixed “mind cost” of addressing it.  If that’s the case, then addressing three opportunities leaves 85% of your time after the fixed cost (or nearly 30% of your attention per opportunity) to truly develop them. But pursuing five leaves 75% (or about 15% per opportunity) and pursuing ten?  That leaves half your time to dedicate and only 5% to pursue each opportunity.  And so it goes: The fixed cost of opportunity pursuit, even if it’s small, devours valuable development time.  But while the cost of pursuit may be linear, the price you pay per pursuit in terms of dilution is essentially exponential.

And, no, you can’t escape the fixed cost, because it’s more than organizational.  Even left fully alone, you have to contend with your own brain, which incurs a cost when shifting gears.  That’s why multi-tasking is a dangerous thing.  Your brain simply can’t filter out all the noise between the many focus areas.

The impact to your organization is easily as bad. You see this all the time: the organizational costs imposed on opportunity pursuit.  They might look like project reviews, justifications, planning meetings, and deployment program reviews, and in some organizations, these exceedingly hungry mandates devour more of the managers’ time than actually pursuing opportunities.

Admit it…you’ve seen this happen.  And, all too often, it’s because of the fear of missing out: ol’ FOMO.

But what drives the fear of missing out?  In almost all instances it’s confidence. You don’t know enough about a critical few things, so you spread your bets around…only in doing so, you don’t simply allocate resources, you simultaneously dilute them.  In gambling terms, you play with scared money; you impose a fear tax. In the process, you often create a lot of really small initiatives that don’t go very far or make much difference. Refer to this article from a few years ago about killing these “gerbils” in your plans.  In simple terms, the fear of missing out leads you to this: You don’t want to miss an opportunity, and that means you might miss them all.

So what is the point of all this?  It’s pretty basic, actually. Challenge yourself to focus on the critical few things that matter. If you don’t have the confidence to do so, invest the time to build it.  Challenge your organization to do the same.  That’s what a smart strategist does with resources.

What do you think?  Are you diluting your focus out of fear?  

 

Evolution and business transformation

A brief notion of what it takes to actually evolve in the business world.

Geoff Wilson

“We need to transform” says the executive.

But what does that really mean?

To the dude with the MBA, it means driving margins higher, generating more cash flow, and establishing the efficient organization of the future. Only, it’s too often that such “transformations” are drafted on somebody else’s template. I grew up in an age where everybody wanted to “be like Mike,” and those same kids are now adults chasing the best in the business. Only instead of trying to dunk a basketball with their tongue sticking out, they are trying to implement the business system of their favorite high-flying company.

If you’re in an industrial company, that might mean you are emulating Danaher, or drawing on time-tested lessons from Toyota, or attempting to be like GE (not anymore, of course, because GE is passé).

If you’re in tech, then you are emulating Netflix, who creatively leaked a slide deck on culture years ago that seems to have inspired legions of management engineers. Or, maybe it’s Google parent Alphabet, Inc. that strikes your fancy.

You learn about these business systems at current or erstwhile world-class companies, and it all looks doable as you contemplate your transformation. But it’s not, and too many otherwise really bright managers don’t understand why.

So let me try to explain.

I just returned from a fascinating trip to the Galápagos Islands. The Galápagos are well-known for their unique and highly differentiated species, some of which have adapted over many generations to their own specific islands. Everybody knows about the Galápagos tortoise. Most people are aware of the marine iguana, and many people know about the legendary clumsiness of the blue-footed boobie. Finally, many people are aware of the many varieties of Darwin’s finches, with their many different beaks specially shaped for different food types.

These species all evolved through a course of natural selection from some primordial ancestors along their family tree: The marine iguana doubtless comes from iguana stock, the giant tortoise from tortoise stock, and the finches from a finch ancestor. And today they are competitively specialized to their specific environments, some of which are only miles apart in distance while being worlds apart in hospitality to non-local species.

Which brings me to the natural illustration: You wish to transform your company, and that’s fine, but you have to transform from your own template. If you have iguana DNA, don’t pine for the airborne life of the finch; if you’re a finch, forget about evolving to be a giant tortoise.

That’s not transformation, it’s a delusion.

The punchline is this: You must know your DNA, and once you know it, you must steer your transformation along it. Great things can happen to companies that take the best of their DNA and add or snip. Horrific things happen to companies that attempt to transform via somebody else’s DNA.

I, and probably you, have seen such mutant companies slogging along in confusion and demoralization while some “smart and worldly” senior executive tries to impose their iguana DNA onto a finch culture. That is not the way to evolve a corporate culture. You do it by knowing who you are.

What do you think? Can an iguana become a finch? Can your organization do the same?