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The importance of doing career due diligence

A little research and a few hints are plenty when you’re looking for your next job.

Geoff Wilson

Picture it: You’re thinking about joining a new organization. You just so happen to know a few people with very solid inside knowledge of the organization. One of them gives you this pearl: “On a scale of 1 to 10, the leadership team you would join is a solid 8—but the leader is a 4.”

What would you do? You might say “8, wow. That’s pretty good. I could do much worse.” Or you might say “Ugh, a leader who’s a 4. Back to the drawing board.”

Here’s what I’d tell you …

KEEP SHOPPING!

Any leader who has engendered enough bad will to have innocent observers rate them a 4 probably deserves elimination from your solution set. Of course, I write this with the assumption that you have other options; if you’re desperate, take your chances with a bad leader. After all, bad leaders deserve to have teams of desperate people.

Why does this matter to your career? Because a little due diligence is a good thing.

I’m actually wary of people who take jobs without asking questions. Like, really wary. Scary wary. Why? Because a person who will take a job with you without a question asked is probably just looking for a job. And you know what? There are lots of jobs out there.

People with purpose ask questions that relate to their purposes. I’ve had people ask questions about firm strategy, the career path, and even faith in the workplace. None of them were off-putting; these people showed sincere curiosity about where their own skills, purposes, and beliefs fit. But people without purpose just ask for offers; they don’t do any due diligence.

And those candidates deserve no offers when it comes to professional roles. “Ouch,” you might say. “What about junior people who don’t know any better?” Yep, they get a pass. But anyone who’s been around the block even once should know better.

I know of an executive who left a role with a firm after years within it, and the particular role he left was open and advertised for months and months. He constituted what I would consider a juicy due diligence target. Why? Well, he was there for all the world to see, regardless of what he could or couldn’t say about the role. He did, in fact, receive dozens of calls about the role and the organization. While I’m not sure how he talked about the role to those who were interested, I do know one thing: The person who actually took the role never called him. That would be a glaring red flag for me if I were filling the role. It says a lot about the depth of curiosity of the person who took the role, doesn’t it?

It’s not a sin to ask questions about a role that might be offered to you. And if you encounter resistance from your potential future organization when you do ask questions … run away! Any team that questions your motives for doing due diligence on them, particularly if you’re a very senior executive, doesn’t deserve to attract top talent.

Go ahead and look them in the mouths. Gift horses, they ain’t.

What do you think? Have you ever encountered resistance from an organization when you asked about it during an interview cycle? 

Everybody wants to be a rock star

You gotta love the process to be great, in management or any field.

Geoff Wilson

You know something funny? Pretty much everybody wants to be a rock star. No, I don’t literally mean a rock-‘n’-roll celebrity with long hair, tattoos, piercings, and leather pants. I mean a figurative rock star nailing every performance at whatever they do.

But you know something else? Very few people want—no, like—to do what it takes to get there. And therein lies the rub of achieving success in just about any field. It can be boiled down to a single phrase: You have to love the process of achieving greatness to have the best chance of becoming great.

That means that no matter how much you’d love to be Eddie Van Halen on the guitar, if you don’t love or at least appreciate the pain of cracked and bleeding fingers that comes from countless hours of practicing new licks, you probably won’t get there. Ever.

Show me someone great at something, anything, and I’ll show you someone who has honed their craft through the process of becoming great. The process is typically exhausting, frustrating, painful, and tedious. If it weren’t, everyone would doggedly pursue greatness rather than passively wish for it.

Great speaker? Many hours of practice—probably in their closet or in front of the mirror, but still. Great strategist? Yep, lots of practice—possibly by observing a magnificent depth of strategic patterns and behaviors. Great mechanic? Plenty of practice, as well as burns, cuts, and sore muscles. Great typist? Lots. Of. Tedious. Typing.

Sure, the great ones are often gifted. But, most of the time, they love the process, too. They love the bloody fingers, skinned knuckles, and late nights in front of a spreadsheet. They crave the smell of engine exhaust or sweaty locker rooms.

These people relish the act of building greatness. They may love it even more than being great.

One cautionary note: I’m not talking about someone who has a great position. That’s totally different. There are people with great titles and positions, and then there are great professionals. They aren’t always the same. After enough years, you start to realize that.

So, you want to be a rock star? Find a stage where you enjoy the process of building toward greatness. If you never liked practice, you were probably in the wrong field. The great ones love the grind.

What do you think?

 

What If You Gig a Lemon?

As the gig economy continues to evolve, how do we define value in it?

I had this link come across my newsfeed today.

It looks like seminal gig economy facilitator TaskRabbit is pursuing a strategic sale.

From the article:

One of the earliest and most prominent startups of the so-called “sharing economy” or “gig economy” is evaluating the possibility of selling itself. As reported by Recode, freelance work marketplace TaskRabbit acknowledged that it is contemplating a sale after receiving inbound interest from a possible strategic buyer.

Now, I won’t comment on the merits fo the report other than to say that “inbound interest” usually means “we put ourselves up for sale and somebody called.”

Usually.

But it raises the question in this whole gig economy concept.  How do we place value on freelance contractors?  This issue is one that certainly matters to anybody contemplating the valuation of TaskRabbit as a company (because, one would assume, the value of a broker is in its ability to consistently snag a vig out of a high-value transaction for both the buyer and seller of a service).

When it comes to well-defined services like Uber, one can establish real regulating metrics for the service and scare out poor quality relatively quickly (especially when it comes to competing against taxis in most cities, which are decidedly…crappy). And, as with the mountains of venture capital that have underwritten Uber’s below market prices show, you can incite trial use of almost any simple service.

But, when it comes to more trust-oriented services, like those TaskRabbit sells, the ability to assure value becomes a big issue.  If I’m going to invite someone into my house to assemble furniture (one of the tasks that TaskRabbit puts right on its front page as an example), I have to know what risk I’m actually taking for the price.

And, you know what?  That risk is highly variable.  The person might break the furniture, soil the carpet, and scratch the floor.  Sure, TaskRabbit can reimburse for that, but who takes the risk of time, disappointment, and re-work?

You do.

And that’s where the gig economy will face its biggest challenge:  quality assurance a priori.

The more complex and critical the task, the more difficult the quality assurance mountain to climb.  Move from a contractor who assembles your furniture to one who builds your financial plan, and you start to see how trust gets built into the equation.  You always seek references (or the backing of a big balance sheet) when looking for a new financial advisor.

The problem with mass-market matching services (in both the consumer market, like Task Rabbit, and in professional markets, like any number of talent agencies out there), is two-fold.

First, the discerning buyer who cares deeply about quality and who is likely far more loyal to high-quality experiences–we at WGP call these the “clients you want”–won’t take the risk on a mass-market service. They will either demand a barebones price, or just go on about their business.

Second–and this is the real challenge for gig-talent-markets–people with real high-quality and trustworthy talents are usually already busy.  There’s a reason the A/V contractor all your friends like is booked 4 months out.

He’s a good one.

The confluence of these two factors leads gig-market-makers like TaskRabbit to face a version of the classic “lemons problem” in used car markets:  Because sellers can hide the true quality of their services ex-ante, buyers demand pricing that assumes the service is already a lemon.

This is a problem for any broker, and acts as a weight on prices (to the benefit of the buyer, to be sure…but to the detriment of the seller and the broker). So, companies focused on brokering services that are increasingly ambiguous will face the biggest issues and talent validation costs.  Talent markets for high profile independent consultants are already seeing some of these cracks.  Those services place, on average, very strong consultants with their companies. But that’s on average, which means not systematically.  And, it only takes one “oh crap” to screw up a whole lot of “atta boys.”

The solution?  The more critical the task, the more intense the background check and validation of the service needed. In the home furniture assembly market, it probably only means a handful of 5 star ratings on an app.  In the independent consulting market, it probably means a handful of real, solid references not coming from the broker themselves.

It’s the same as it ever was.  The outer circles may (and should) get contracted out through efficient means (like Uber, Lyft, etc.), but for the inner circles?

Trust is king.

I suppose this spells danger for the “strategic buyer” evaluating TaskRabbit today. In-home services are a challenge, and risk sharing in that world is doubtless fraught with concerns.

What do you think? 

 

Selfish Selflessness

Hard-nosed pride makes it all possible.

It’s Thanksgiving weekend, so how about a post on football?

I was an offensive lineman.  That fact has left physical and mental imprints on me that are hard to ignore.

The paradox of the great offensive lineman (and, to be clear, I make no claim of greatness…) is that he is able to take a fantastically selfless objective and make it selfish.

Yes, you heard that right. An offensive lineman, who toils ideally in anonymity (unless he’s doing it wrong), has to be at once selfless and selfish. He has to be able to work selfishly at a trade that is intensely individual–working for a win on every single play of a football game against another man–while at the same time doing all his work for the success of others and team.  He doesn’t carry the ball.  He doesn’t score.  He just puts in work in hopes that others will, too.

I played in 35 college football games and started 30 of them. In my college days, I officially touched a “live” football perhaps twice (on fumble recoveries), and never in a position other than on the ground.

That is twice that I actually had the football in my hands, out of perhaps 2200 total plays I was a part of in official collegiate football games.

Every single other play required absolute dedication to a job that resulted in somebody else’s ability to move the ball down the field.  It required dedication to playing within a unit of four other offensive linemen plying their trades at the same time, and dedication to doing whatever it took to help the ballcarrier get down the field.

The interesting reality of a lineman’s role is that the lineman can have a massive victory against his opponent on a play that goes nowhere, and he can get beaten on a play that results in a touchdown (ask me how I know). What matters is a commitment to the success of another person and an absolute commitment to getting the job done.  There is an odd sense of humility in knowing that you can be a dominant player and a failure at the same time.

There’s an odd selfishness that one must develop in the job. More importantly, there’s an odd selflessness that one must develop in the job.  It’s selfish selflessness, perhaps best described as pride.

It’s pride in doing what it takes to help the team.

The play called requires you to sprint on sprained ankles to hit a 320-pound defensive tackle with your left shoulder–the one you just sprained–to use your head (connected to your neck which has been sprained since that game three weeks ago) to cut off his path to the ballcarrier?

Get it done.  It’s your job.

It has been a long time since I’ve been on a football field as a player.  But, you know what?  I miss the simplicity of that sort of grinding pride.  The pride in being a key but anonymous part of moving the team forward.

And, I’ll tell you this: Finding people with the right combination of selfish selflessness is exceedingly difficult.

We live in a fantasy football age.  Everybody scores points. It just ain’t so in the real world.  When you find someone with a combination of true ability and pride in being able to help others that can be characterized as selfish selflessness, hold onto them.  Their less interesting counterparts–the ones more focused on their rights than their responsibilities–will pale in comparison to someone who can combine ability with personal pride.

As the proprietor of a now years old consulting firm, I get to apply my sense of selfish selflessness every day.  It’s embodied in the bar that I hold for myself and for my teams in delivering for clients.  We don’t carry the ball.  We don’t score touchdowns.  We work hard to prepare the ground and direction for the ballcarrier.

We hear words like “selfish” and “prideful” nowadays, and they sound very negative.  That’s because we impute some negative traits along with them like arrogance, stubbornness, and greed.

Those things don’t go along with the kind of selfish selflessness I’m writing about this morning.

I’m here to tell you that pride in a job well done, whether one is carrying the ball or wallowing in the mud in front of the ballcarrier, is one sports analogy that truly does convert to the business world.

Hard-nosed pride–combined with a selfless mindset of helping others–makes it all possible.

What do you think?

Talent or Motor?

Don’t underplay the intangibles–motor matters.

One of the more useful metaphors used in the American Football world is the concept of “motor.”

Anybody who has been inside of football at the highest levels has heard a very particular description of players that is, perhaps, the highest compliment there is to an individual’s character as a player… “He’s got a great motor.”

It’s actually kind of a funny phrase to think about, as if some guys have better engines inside their bodies than others. But, it’s one of the more honest assessments that can come out of a scout’s mouth.

Why?  Because it cuts through the crap.  A guy can be 6’6″, leap tall buildings and lift elephants; but if he plays with “no motor” he’ll be an also-ran.  Professional football’s history is littered with magnificent physical specimens who have been outplayed by shorter, fatter, weaker teammates with bad bodies, stiff joints, balding heads, and great motors.  In fact, one of the dirty little secrets of the National Football League is that for every “best athlete” on the field, there are probably a half dozen or more so-called “high motor” guys who couldn’t win a footrace.

Count on it.

High motor guys may not have the most talent, but they get the most out of what they have.  They are, in a broader vocabulary world, tenacious.  They are relentless.  They are dogged. They are aggressive, earnest, forceful, focused, incessant, persistent, ceaseless, and unremitting.

You get the picture.

Why this matters to you as an executive.

In forming highly executable strategic plans, we always end up in the discussion about talent.  A given organization having the talent to execute a given strategy is not…a given.  So, as practical practitioners, we focus in on the who once the what and when are coming into focus.

Unfortunately, talent discussions can focus in on tangible qualities of individuals and ignore intangibles.  In other words, talent discussions focus on a guy’s time in the footrace vs. productivity on the field.  Only, in a corporate environment, this looks like “where he went to school,” “what degree he has,” “who he has worked for,” and “what business he has been in.”  vs. “what he did to change things while there.”

People with motor in the business world make things happen as individuals.  They may be system players, but they rise above others and show what they can do through their tenacity and relentlessness.

And, you can see it from the earliest points in their career.  High motor professionals do things that others don’t.  They deliver work beyond their years.  They teach themselves.  They think about issues even when they are off the clock. They care about their work as a reflection of themselves. 

In your strategic planning, don’t forget the talent.  In your talent planning, don’t forget the intangibles.

Motor matters.

What do you think?

Got Talent? Prove it.

Talent can only look good on paper for so long.

I happen to follow a certain college football team that has been in the process of breaking in a new quarterback while having–at the same time–one of the most exciting backs in the game. The new quarterback looks good on paper: Big guy, good athlete, strong arm.

Half a season ago, the new quarterback (and, no, there’s no reason to get into names because that would be personal and there’s too much press on these guys as it is) was coming along very slowly.  He wasn’t showing much, but made a few plays.  The coaches would say he was “doing what was needed” while the superstar back did his job and basically carried the team.

Only, the back couldn’t do it all.

And, the quarterback–when asked to do more–hasn’t been able to deliver.  The so-called smart money is starting to move from the incumbent new guy to “player to be named later.”

The quarterback, able to ride along with great talent, didn’t have to make many plays.  But, when it came time for him to actually carry the team, he hasn’t been able to do so.  It’s a truism in sports just as much as it is in business:  When bringing new players online, it’s good to develop them slowly. This is especially true if you can surround your new players with great talent.

But, eventually, the new players have to answer the bell…on their own.

This post is about answering the bell.

The “point” of this post for management and boards

Developing players is a critical part of any manager’s role in an organization. And, knowing whether you’ve chosen the right players is a substantial part of any executive’s or board member’s role.

So, what does my little football vignette tell you?

1. Developing players slowly is fine, but you have to have a glimpse.

Just like the quarterback in my story above, it’s fine to place a new executive in a role and let them get used to the organization and culture before making decisions. It’s fine to move people into roles slowly.  But you have to see something of substance during the transition.

You have to see them want to make a decision or two.

Ask yourself:  Have I seen a glimpse of the production I need from this new player?

2. Surrounding new players with supportive talent is great, but the new player has to bring something to the table.

I’m a big fan of “scaffolding” new hires and new executive teams with supportive structures that get them up to speed. In the story above, our new quarterback has an all-America back in the backfield with him.  That makes things easier.  Surrounding new executives with talented people who provide data, insight, direction, and suggestions goes a long way toward “apprenticing” great new talent.  But, how the new player responds to the scaffolding can be instructive.  You’ve placed a new executive at the head of a team of high talent sales people. Do they start to bring anything to the table, or do they just “hold office?”

If they just hide (or just warm their seat), especially behind other talent, then you need to know that.

Ask yourself: Does the new player produce without leaning inordinately on the talent around them?

3. Eventually, everybody is exposed.

This may be the most important point. In fact, it’s the point that prompted the post.  Eventually, your player’s talent will be tested.  You will have to have your player stand up in front of your board or a key customer and perform.  They will eventually have to answer the call.  Their scaffolding will be stripped away, they will have had enough time to absorb and reflect. They will be laid bare.  What happens then? If you are counting on an incompetent hire–whether it’s your account manager in sales, your VP of HR, or your CEO–to hide forever (or even just until you retire), then you are playing with fire.

Eventually, everybody is exposed. Some are exposed faster than others.

Ask yourself: Will my new player survive exposure as the individual talent they are supposed to be?

4. Other people are watching.

Your new player may take longer than you planned to develop. That can be ok. Unless they are exposed early, timing can be flexible. You hire a new guy to do a bunch of M&A work, and it takes years to get off the ground. That can be fine.  But…and it’s a big but…you have to watch out for collateral damage.  A CEO who comes into a new company with board mandate but without much vision or knowledge can only survive for so long before the executive team and the organization realize the new emperor has no clothes. Same can be said of any new hire or new player.  I’ve witnessed senior leaders who make no decisions of any substance due to their own lack of conviction and knowledge.  They wander hither and yon without any real point of view–letting the rest of the team do the real work.

One senior executive I spent some time around spent more time contemplating the design and furnishing of facility renovations and figuring out ways to manage around board meetings than he ever spent on business strategy, customer value propositions, financial plans, or anything else that might have been “strategic” to an executive of his standing.  Whether through lack of insight, energy, or ability, his “happy place” just wasn’t in actually doing the job of a a senior executive. His people knew it, and it hurt.

If you are the person who hire the “hither and yon” executive, you have to know that such hires reflect on your own competence.

Ask yourself: Is my new hire hurting my organization and my own reputations via his own incompetence?

So what?

All of this is to say one thing:  In the world of strategic management, player selections can only look good on paper for so long.

The players eventually have to show glimpses.

They eventually have to carry the load on their own.

They have to survive exposure.

Your performance depends on it, not to mention your reputation.

What do you think?

A Song For Me at 23

If I could tell my younger self what matters in professional life…I would tell him this.

I walked out of college a free man, but I didn’t know it.  I may have been a free man with a limp and a headache thanks to a few too many days on the football field, but I was free.

I had no money to speak of and drove my girlfriend’s car. Luckily, I now know, I also had no debt. Along with that, I think I had a healthy appreciation for hard work.

Still there are a lot of things I wish I had known at that age as they relate to business and executive life.  There are things you just don’t learn in school, and many of them relate to interpersonal or even personality-based observations. That’s why I’m writing this. I figured that I can put out a few points that I wish I had known at 23, and I figure they might help someone else along the way.

One thing is for sure, they will help you understand my professional worldview.  If you read this blog, you know that it’s about worldview, and these points represent scar tissue; none of them has been fatal (totally), and some of them represent processes that have made me the professional I am.  Read them, and then tell me where I’m wrong (or right).

____________________________

 

Dear 23-year-old self:

You are about to embark on a career.  It’s going to be fun, frustrating, and probably not as fast-moving as you would like, so I’m going to list a few suggestions here that will give you a leg up in your career, and perhaps in your life.  Many of them you won’t be able to understand until you’ve experienced the situations themselves, and that’s just life, but some of them might help you be better prepared for the situation.

  1. Invest the time on your own or in a class to learn principles of accounting and finance cold.  I know it’s an odd “reflection” to start with on a list like this one, but it’s true. Sure, your liberal arts education is valuable because it helps you to think…Sure, whatever.  But what’s really valuable is knowing how to assess organizations’ financial health, understand the time value of money, and peer into how decisions are made vs. how they should be made based on the numbers. No matter where you sit, knowing the numbers gives you a leg up, so you need the tools to learn how to know the numbers.  If you don’t know what a T-account is or can’t explain why a company would invest in a project that will lose money for five years, you need to go back to school.
  2. Acquire a healthy skepticism for title and wealth. These are not always an indication of the quality of person you are dealing with.  Like British accents, titles and wealth can lead you to a false sense of security that the person you’re working with is smart and accomplished, and that is in fact often the case, but not always, and the same goes for degrees and credentials–the guy with the engineering degree from State can often run circles around the Harvard MBA.
  3. Beware anyone who thinks work hours are defined by the calendar.  “My” holidays and “my” vacation are signs of a paycheck player.  If you’re on a professional track, opportunity comes at all times in all shapes.  That guy who calls you at 9 pm on a Friday?  He probably has something important to say.  I once had a manager answer the phone in Europe at 2 am local time when I called from the U.S.  I had no idea where he was, and he made no protest during the call.  I didn’t find out until later that week, after he had returned to the U.S., that he had even been in Europe when I called. I asked him why he answered, and you know his response?  “Might have been important.”  I love that guy.
  4. Working harder than other people does not guarantee you success or wealth.  It might provide you with some dignity, however.  Remember Boxer from Animal Farm?  He was the noble horse who always worked hard for the cause, no matter the direction.  The work didn’t take away from his nobility, but it did kill him–he literally worked himself to death.
  5. Learn and understand the snowdrift problem in game theory.  This one is kind of nerdy, but it’s real everywhere. There will always be people whose first move in a tough situation will be to wait for somebody else to do the hard work.  Be sure that you think about accountability carefully, and if you’re always the one shoveling snow, be bold enough to get out.
  6. Recognize that there are people without consciences, and they are probably better at the political game than you.  I once observed an executive execute the most deceptive game of bait and switch I’ve ever seen, and shortly after that, he offered advice and support to the person who had been baited.  The kicker?  The executive knew he was being deceptive–he offered his advice with the phrase “I don’t know why you would trust us, but here’s the advice.”  The nerve.
  7. Find a way to serve.
  8. Learn to manage for the short term, but get out of any situation that manages to only be short term, because your life will (hopefully) be long. It’s important to learn how to manage for the short term–to cut costs and rein in spending or maybe seek additional sales to cover a shortfall elsewhere. And it’s okay to manage to the short term–that’s where we all eat.  But it’s also important to realize that just as alcoholism is the diseased extreme of enjoying a good drink, short-termism is both a disease and a kind of addiction: The more you do it, the more it becomes insidious.
  9. Hotheads aren’t always bad.  I had a boss early in my career who was the greatest guy to ever throw his keyboard across a room; he was a tantrum machine, but he was also a guy who genuinely cared.  Know the difference between a grade-A jerk or asshole and a good person with a strong sense of duty but also a temper.  There is a difference.
  10. Where there’s no contract, there’s no contract.  Here’s a piece of advice that’s going to sound more cynical than it is.  No, I’m not saying “always have a contract”; I’ve negotiated multi-million dollar consulting engagements that were founded on the client’s trust and the consultant’s commitment to excellence, and I believe in the power of a person’s word and handshake. But, and this is an important but, many people like to use the ambiguity of no contract to gain advantage.  So my advice to you is to always know when there is no contract–know your counterparty/client/customer, and your boss (see what I did with that last one?), as well as you know yourself.  Don’t rely on contracts, but know when you don’t have one; no amount of flattery and gushy feelings at the start of a relationship will overcome the poor values of a counterparty who won’t define or fulfill commitments.
  11. Beware anyone who goes out of their way to say they are giving you friendly advice.  They probably are neither giving you advice nor being your friend.  True friends don’t have to reiterate the point; you know them by their deeds.
  12. Liquid net worth provides flexibility. Whether you’re a shop floor worker or a CEO, money is important, but it’s really liquid net worth that matters; I know plenty of senior executives who are miserable but completely locked down to a bad team, bad company, or bad leader due to their own financial choices.  Always keep enough liquidity on hand to be able to walk away without regret; that means you should accumulate a few thousand bucks when you’re just out of college, and it might mean hundreds of thousands of dollars once you’ve “made it.”  Financial handcuffs are tough, which brings me to my next point…
  13. People make really bad decisions when they’re under financial stress.  This can include executives cooking the books (or even “just” shading them surreptitiously) to make their bonuses, but it can also include things as innocuous as salespeople treating customers poorly or manufacturing workers doing their jobs poorly.  You really don’t want to have a workforce that’s worried about whether they can make their next grocery bill, and more than that, you don’t want a CFO who will make rotten financial and personnel decisions just to make a bonus.  The love of money is the root of all sorts of bad things–I read that somewhere.
  14. Care.  Yes, I mean that: Care.  You will be tempted (in fact, encouraged in some environments) to acquire social and emotional distance from the people some think you will have to hurt to be successful; it will come with the challenge to “do what it takes” to keep your job.  But don’t be fooled–care.  I was once offered a role that implicitly came with the need to fire a couple of people I had coached and mentored and whose capabilities were strong. It wasn’t the right thing to do, so I didn’t; I chose to leave.  On the way out, I was goosed with a comment and critique about not doing what it takes, but that’s just a consequence of caring.  You know what else is a consequence of caring?  Loyalty, love, the ability to sleep well at night.  In short, your life will be better because you took the time to care.
  15. Trust is cumulative…in both directions.  You will live life with a sense of trust in people you know you can rely on, but you have to learn to know when you have enough evidence to know you can trust someone, and also to know when you can’t. 
  16. Respect the dignity of other people.  There are a lot of instances in life when it’s easier to double cross, lie, shade the truth, and walk away–resist that temptation. Stripped bare, we all rely on others. So respect that, and you’ll go a long way.
  17. Life and business are not zero-sum games. You’ve made it through college, and maybe played some sports.  If so, you’ve gotten used to winners and losers, but life isn’t like that.  In life, there are winners of all sorts and losers of all sorts, and sometimes there are situations when everyone is a winner (or at least not losers).  Really effective executives I know think about when they are playing a zero-sum game and when they have the opportunity to grow the pie, so learn to realize the beauty of growing the pie.   Zero-sum games are in actuality very rare–we only make them common. On a related note,
  18. A spreadsheet can’t show you how to grow the pie.  Unfortunately, math without vision only leads to reductive incrementalism.  Very, very few spreadsheets would have predicted the rise of Standard Oil, the emergence of digital music, or the turnaround of Apple Computer. Numbers don’t lie, but they don’t think either. Vision has to be injected into that spreadsheet; don’t mistake tools and math for strategic vision.
  19. When it comes to people, where they (and you) stand depends on where they sit.  Upton Sinclair famously noted that it is difficult to get a man to understand something when his livelihood depends on his not understanding it. Perspective matters, and if you get good at taking different perspectives, you’ll start to understand how other people think, although it does take time and practice.  By altering where you sit and then thinking about where you stand, you start to think interesting thoughts when it comes to business strategy.  Funny thing is, you also start to think differently about the world.  Perhaps John D. Rockefeller (of Standard Oil) really did save the whales; perhaps Steve Jobs is actually the cause of a generation of hearing loss and an epidemic of traffic fatalities; and perhaps, just perhaps, what you’re being paid to do isn’t good for the organization or the world.  Get beyond your salary when it comes to what right and wrong look like. Stretch your thinking, and be bigger than your smallness.
  20. No matter how much garbage they eat, seagulls are not really good creatures to have around. Seagulls fly in, beg for food, take a dump, and then cackle a lot; some people are enamored with them, but in reality, they’re just rats with wings (as we used to say back home on the Gulf Coast).  Seagulls live at the beach and the dump, and in human form, they often live in corporate environments.  My advice for you is to learn to be a problem solver, not a problem finder; cultivate a constructive approach to life, not just an observational one. Justify your existence, and don’t be a seagull.
  21. Know how to incrementally assess situations.  The incidence of “good from far, but far from good” in people and companies is increasing because the channels of communication are increasing; it’s far easier for companies to cultivate high-profile brands that cover up lowlife cultures.  On the flip side, it’s far easier for motivated individuals to learn a lot about any situation in a short time frame. Learn to assess situations at first glance, after a few minutes, after a few days, and after months.  Learn to take the time to sleep on decisions, and do your due diligence, but also trust your gut.  This is especially true about people: If people look and smell unethical even though they’re wearing ethics as a badge, disregard the badge and go with look and feel.
  22. Don’t be a “yes” man, but realize that being a “no” man is just as bad.  Yes men are common in any culture; they go along to get along.  It’s a fact of life, but not a very edifying existence, so find a way to have your own point of view or else you’ll be redundant.  But the opposite position is equally bad; the “no” man rarely encourages growth or expansion.  Try to think about growth as coming from a combination of yesses and nos, and live in the mess between the absolutes.
  23. Be exceptionally careful about “following orders.”  Just following orders can give you a mental freedom that allows you to ignore basic ethical principles, and ultimately it can corrupt your values.  Have the self-respect to reflect on orders, and recognize that they shouldn’t supersede your humanity.
  24. Your network is everything, but you have to know what a network is.  A real network is not the number of people you’re connected to–it’s the number of people who will do something for you if you’re in need, and there is a huge difference between the two. In my early days, people thought networking was collecting business cards; nowadays it’s probably LinkedIn connections–but both are wrong. Networking is finding reciprocal relationships that help you by your helping others.
  25. If you’ve made it this far, you probably already know this, but reading is a highly underrated skill.  I’d argue it’s second only to listening.
  26. Finally, and perhaps as a wrapper…Preserve your self-respect.  There will be plenty of times in your career when you’ll be faced with choices that can erode your self-respect; sometimes it’s just as simple as taking a call in the middle of a family event, and sometimes it’s worse. You’ll find months of your career that are bad for your health–it is going to happen. But even if one day you find that you have to make a choice you know is wrong but you have to do it to preserve a broader agenda or position, just be sure you know the stakes.

I’m sure you’re off to a fantastic career.  Enjoy it, and maybe one of these points will save you from a scar or two.

Sincerely,

Your much older self

How Rogue Can Work For You

Sometimes, independence is the best policy.

 

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

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

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

Telling.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I chose rogue.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Might as well admit it.

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

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

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

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

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

 

Skill, Will, and…Micromanagement?

Nowhere in the job description are the words “watch their every move.” 

Recently, I had the privilege of leading a classroom of MBA students through a discussion on influencing and team building.  During the discussion I dusted off the old “skill-will” matrix.

You know?  The skill will matrix?  It’s the one that lets you consider the people you lead by their level of skill and their level of will, and to lead or manage them accordingly.  It looks like this:

SkillWill1

It’s a useful tool at a superficial level.  It can certainly help leaders, especially leaders struggling to establish a leadership style, to handle diverse teams.

It’s kind of a Kenny Rogers “The Gambler” approach to leadership:  Know when to guide ’em, know when to excite ’em…

It brought to mind an interesting reality:  “Micromanage” isn’t on the matrix.

A lot of bad leaders (and good leaders in bad times) need to learn this.

Sure, people with a combination of low skill and low will need more direction.  They also might need to be redeployed against different work; and that’s the rub…If you are micromanaging, one of you is redundant.

Micromanagement is neither inspiring nor sustainable.

So What?  

This one is straightforward.  Two sides of the coin deserve discussion:

If you as leader find yourself having to micromanage, you are probably either deploying talent inefficiently (i.e., against problems that are beyond the talent), or you are insecure.

Figure out which it is and fix it.

If you as a follower find yourself being micromanaged, you are either under-delivering, or you need to insist on a heart to heart with your leader.

In either event, it isn’t a sustainable proposition; so why start it in the first place?

Use the matrix, know when to delegate and when to direct.  But, know when too much is too much.

What do you think? 

Why I Don’t Believe In Recruiters

Recruiters are tools…on every level.

 

In case you haven’t noticed, I have a modest disdain for consultants and professionals who come from the “say anything” philosophy of life; I wrote on that here. Spin is a bad thing, confronting the elephants in the room is a good thing, and it’s really that simple.  In this case, I’m going to take it to a whole new level of hate, but that’s just in the spirit of keeping it real.

The title of this article is an homage of sorts to an aggressively atheist song by Art Alexakis of the band Everclear titled “Why I Don’t Believe in God.” In that lyric, Alexakis recounts scenes from a troubled childhood that sapped his ability to believe in anything related to God.  It’s one of those challenging thoughts that we all need at times:  Is our hatred of something related to bad people and experiences or related to a really bad game?

In this case, I’m going to hate on the game, and the players get their dose as well–all based on my subjective experience.

Sometime around 1995, I was deeply entrenched in an upper division football program at my university (yes, mine!). For anyone who doesn’t know, college football is all about the ability to recruit top talent.  “It ain’t the x’s and the o’s, it’s the Jimmys and the Joes” is how it’s been put in one form or another for a long time–meaning a great team comprises great players, no matter the scheme.

In that world, recruiting matters deeply.  Finding the right talent and convincing “it” to come to your football program are the two foundational moves of a healthy program.  It’s not the only thing, but it’s close.

So, one evening at dinner with the team, one of the assistant football coaches gets up from the table and says bluntly, “I need to go lie to some kids.”

He meant, of course, that he needed to go make the telephone calls to budding high school stars that assistant coaches were obliged to make. He needed to go “lie to some kids” about their ability to be better than the incumbent players, right away and on their way to stardom right now. Oh, and by the way, we really care about you and would never try to over-recruit your talent while you’re playing for us.  Just sign on the line, and forget about those other programs.

It was a thoroughly funny statement at the time.  After all, we were all elite players in a good program who had made our choices. In that world, it is the rare player who leaves a team.  And we liked this coach.  But, wow, the truth.

Fast forward 15 years, and that same group of budding football stars is now met with a plethora of headhunters.  The interesting part is that the recruiting pitch is hardly any different. “We have opportunities here.” “The career advancement potential is outstanding.” “The prior guys just didn’t have the horsepower.” “The company is on the upswing.” “We have no internal talent to fill this role.” “The prior fella just left to pursue other opportunities.” You know the drill–lie to some kids.  Only, in this case, it’s “stroke seasoned professionals with a shaded version of reality that could be construed as misleading.”

So, what happens?  Well, two things.  First, the headhunter gets paid, and second, you take the role and, as they say in the auto business, your mileage varies.  Recruiters, like stock touts and sports agents, have almost no stake in your success; their stake is in your decision.  Always be careful when dealing with anyone who only cares about your decision and not your health or success.

So, now we are down to it: Why I don’t believe in recruiters and what to do about it.

I don’t believe in recruiters because I believe the agency issues are real.  They have an incentive to lie, distort, and cheat to convince both sides of a transaction that the placement is good.  And they are doing it at the individual level; they are dealing with lives. The worst among them are no better than a Boiler Room broker dialing for dollars, except in this case, it’s dealing with entire livelihoods, not just components of someone’s savings.  The best among them know that score and go to work feeling icky every day.

Oooh, lie, distort, cheat?  Those are big, bad words, aren’t they? Well, yes, but just like Art Alexakis’s lyric on disbelieving, it’s my experience that leads me to the thought.  I have been on the client side, the candidate side, and  the observer side of headhunter transactions.  I have also witnessed the most corrupt personal ethics from individuals steeped in this profession.

That’s why I don’t believe in recruiters.

So, what is a corporate executive to do about it?

Well, the most important thing to know is that your best talent prospects already know everything I just wrote above.  They won’t be fooled by the players or the game.  You need to get ahead of that if you, in fact, have a great opportunity for them. Every recruiter from LA to New York will have already tried to pry them from their current roles with promises of candy canes and jelly beans.  You need to cut the crap and tell them why yours is the place to be.  Stop relying on recruiters; everybody knows they’re salespeople.  Sell the virtues of your company from the inside–don’t outsource it.

The second thing is to use recruiters for what they are: Market makers. They are exceptionally valuable in that role.  They are tools in your toolkit.

The third thing is to be aware of the perverse tendency of really great headhunters to embed and distort talent needs.  I’ve never met a headhunter who was good at assessing whether a company actually needed a certain type of talent.  I’ve also never met a headhunter who really wanted to know the company’s talent landscape; that’s the company’s job. But I have met really great relationship recruiters who convince executives that they are strategic partners. Here’s the test for you: How many times have your recruiters asked you to assess your internal people’s resumes (no ethical recruiter would try to share a client’s talent with their other clients, right?) to compare to the external candidates you are hiring? Very rarely, I’ll bet.

This post is all about the tendency of a certain professional niche to produce people and actions of questionable moral caliber. If you know this, and ensure that you are sufficiently isolated from it, you can make use of professional recruiters in the right way.  If not, you’ll just be another heavily stroked senior executive who was fooled by the game. Use recruiters, but don’t let them represent you.

Recruiters are tools…on every level.