Category Archives: Current affairs

Modern World “Sharing”

While it was a lifetime or two ago, I learned a ton while doing my MBA.  With all the noise around Facebook and Cambridge Analytica, I am reminded of one of the “ah-ha moments” from marketing classes.  In short, marketing was all about gaining and using information to get customers to buy your product or service.  Focus Groups.  Surveys.  Rewards Programs.  That was the one that threw this naive 20 something and had me paying attention…Rewards Programs?  Yes, rewards programs were created to track the customers buying patterns.  They were not created to “reward” me with rebates and coupons, they were there to get me to give them information – what I bought, how much, how often, etc.  In 1996 this was amazing news to me.  It opened an entirely new world of data and behavior, tracking and positioning.  I have never forgotten what I learned and it changed how I viewed the world.

Today we see Mark Zuckerberg being publicly “questioned” by members of Congress.  Optically it is clumsy at best, and often looks like a parent or grandparent feebly grasping at a generation and a world that has left them behind.  It is just bad.  It is bad for Facebook, it has to be wildly frustrating and trying for Mark Zuckerberg, it is certainly bad for Congress (heaven knows they do not need any help looking inept) and in the end it is bad for us as taxpayers.  How much money is being spent on this bit of theater?  And then the money that will be spent to enact laws and regulations, for studies and reports, hearings and findings.  However, what I find myself thinking as the Facebook-Cambridge Analytica saga unfolds is another of those clichés I so love, “live by the sword, die by the sword”.

Professionally and personally I am indifferent when it comes to social media.  It is simply another “thing” that is part of the world.  It has a purpose and a place, but I view it much as I view a hammer, a phone, a wrench or a vehicle.  It is a tool.  I use it as I need it, but am neither emotionally nor financially attached.  And much like anything and everything in this world, it can be used for good and for bad.  It is a tool.  The tool does nothing.  The user does everything.

Facebook and Mark Zuckerberg have been open from the beginning about what they do and how they make money.  Facebook created a platform to share information.  Simple.  Note the word share; Facebook never took anything, it received everything.  Much like “rewards programs”, “rebate offers” or the “first one is free”, Facebook was about gathering information and then using said information to drive revenue.  Users give, Facebook takes.  Facebook then sells what users gave.  Plain, simple, and direct.

People wanted a platform to share their stories, their lives, their photos, their likes, their dislikes, their frustrations, their loves, and yes their secrets.  Social media has brought families closer, it has made the world smaller, it has enhanced cross cultural understanding, it has bridged the generational gap, it has opened minds.  It has also served as an echo chamber, a source of vindication and reinforcement for troubled souls the world over and been used to intimidate, bully and harm.  Above all, social media is a tool.  An unimaginably powerful tool that is used to shape and manipulate behavior, for both good and ill.  Sharing information of any sort is a choice.  And with all choices come consequences, and there in lies the cliché.  People want an open, sharing world, they will live in an open and sharing world.  The information you share can and will be used.  Live by the sword, die by the sword.

In the spirit of irony, that cliché, like many, has its roots in The Bible. Matthew 26:52 if anyone is interested. The Bible and the Ancient Greeks are almost always the original source. Funny how that works.

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Roger Bannister – Making the Impossible Possible

There are certain names, achievements and events that just simply are.  Neil Armstrong,  first man to walk on the moon.  The Wright Brothers, the first to fly.  Roger Bannister, broke the 4 minute mile barrier.  In these stories of great achievement, of individuals doing what moments before seemed impossible, come great lessons.  Roger Bannister died Saturday.  Though he will forever be remembered for breaking the 4 minute barrier, it is the lessons he shared that I found myself reflecting on this weekend.

Once the impossible is made possible, it becomes common.  History is riddled with things once thought impossible.  Flight, going to the moon, running a sub 4 minute mile.  All examples of things that could never be done.  While they might not be entirely common, they are certainly not impossible, and short of the moon, not even news worthy.  If one believes something is impossible, it will never happen.  But if one accepts that something is possible, they are on the path to achievement.

Amazing achievement demands sacrifice.  So much goes into that simple sentence, but breaking the 4 minute mile barrier is a story of sacrifice and pain.  It hurts to run fast.  Any runner suffers, but running fast for any amount of distance really, really hurts.  The mental fortitude to endure such self-inflicted pain is the true strength of a runner.  Running at an elite, world-class level, is a monastic existence.  Roger Bannister sacrificed in all other aspects of his life to achieve his goal.  Things thought impossible are not made possible without unfathomable sacrifice.

Focus and Commitment.  It was the most amazing part of the entire Roger Bannister story…he was going to medical school when he broke the 4 minute barrier!  It was the era of “Amateur Athletics” – one could not profit from athletics; it was unseemly.  Roger Bannister was in medical school, would train over his lunch hour (an hour to change, run, cool down, shower and change – an hour), and then occasionally run at meets strictly for the competition and only when his academic schedule allowed.  There were no endorsements, no shoe contracts, no government programs or athletic assistance.  He had to cover his own costs, buy his own shoes, sharpen his own spikes, all of it.  He had to focus and commit to the goal, then do everything required to achieve his goal.

Nothing is ever done alone.  The track optimizes individual effort.  It is the runner, on the track, against the clock.  Yet in his efforts to break the 4 minute barrier, Roger Bannister had help.  He had a coach and trainer, he had teammates and mentors, and on that fateful day he had pacers.  There literally were men who went before him, breaking the wind, setting the stage for his final lap push to finish in 3 minutes 59.4 seconds.  Nothing, even the most solitary of endeavors, is every done entirely alone.

Competition.  Having rivals.  Being pushed.  Having someone to chase, someone nipping at your heels.  It matters.  Roger Bannister was not the only person chasing the 4 minute mile.  The rivalry with American Wes Santee and Australian John Landy was en epic contest.  They all were running in the 4:02 range and were desperate to be the one who broke the barrier.  They each pushed the other, chipping away, gradually going just a bit faster, training a touch harder, honing their craft and demanding more from the others just by competing.  Just as it was a “space race” to the moon, so it was with Bannister, Santee and Landy, and so it is with each of us who compete.  Thank the competition, they make you better.

The Perfect Mile by Neal Bascomb was the book that introduced me to the full story of the 4 Minute Mile.  Like most everyone, I knew Roger Bannister broke the barrier, but knowing what it took, how it was done, the rivalry with Landy and Santee, the worldwide quest to do it, the mental and physical barriers.  That book sets atop one of my book shelves for a reason.  It is that good and taught me so much.  Sir Roger Bannister made the impossible absolutely common.  Yet when asked, he holds his work in medical research as his greatest personal achievement.  That last part is what makes the loss of Roger Bannister so great and the lessons his quest illustrates all the more telling.  He was a regular, and by all accounts, a good guy, who repeatedly did amazing things.  He achieved because he believed, he sacrificed, was focused and committed, had and accepted help, and embraced the competition.

You know, all the things any of us can do.

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Commitment – Rockets, Tom, Olympics and Teddy

There is something almost reassuring in seeing those who put in the work, who took the chance, who totally commit, succeeding, or even failing.  Just this month, we have seen a rocket take a car into space, a privately owned, designed and produced rocket and car.  Seen an older athlete return to the top of his sport, beating folks half his age.  An entire stream of unknown athletes burst onto the world stage, taking gold in events that require the skill, daring, joy and reckless abandon of youth.  Oh, and witnessed the most accomplished quarterback in football yet again lead his team to the Super Bowl.  But what we also saw in these events was failure.  The main rocket missed its remote recovery point, the quarterback lost the Super Bowl, and scores of Olympians melt in the heat of the moment.

“Far better it is to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs even though checkered by failure, than to rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy nor suffer much because they live in that gray twilight that knows neither victory nor defeat.”

  • President Theodore Roosevelt

Watching Shaun White, Chloe Kim and Red Gerard fly, to witness a private company launch a massive rocket, a test launch, complete with a privately produced car as the payload, broadcast live, oh and recover perfectly their booster rockets – all amazing moments.  It was equally rewarding to see Tom Brady slow the hands of time, but lose a game.  Or to see all the success of SpaceX and the Falcon Heavylift not include the perfect recovery of the main rocket.  Witnessing Mikaela Shiffrin win gold in her first event, then be edged off the podium in her specialty, or Lindsay Vonn to settle for bronze in her first event.  All incredible achievements, but not perfection.  Yet they all, in sport or business, have encountered great success, great failure, but through it all, none have never wavered.  Elon, Tom, Lindsay, Shaun, Chloe, Red and Mikaela continue pressing forward.

It takes courage to fail.  It takes commitment to try.  But it takes faith to try again, and again, and again until the moment of truth.  Winning is great, but getting back into the game after the crash, after the loss, after the defeat or just coming up a bit short, well that is the domain of the champion

Again, it is Teddy Roosevelt who said it so much better:

“It is not the critic who counts;
not the man who points out how the strong man stumbled or where the doer of deeds could have done them better.
The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena,
whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood;
who strives valiantly;
who errs and comes short again and again;
who knows great enthusiasms,
the great devotions;
who spends himself in a worthy cause;
who at the best, knows in the end the triumph of high achievement,
and who, at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly
so that his place shall never be with those timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

 

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Kaepernick and the Cause Célèbre Curse

Colin Kaepernick, from a business perspective, is not worth the risk.  It has nothing to do with his political views, his kneeling, his public comments or personal beliefs, nor his athletic abilities or skills.  Rather it has everything to do with his being a cause célèbre.  The more support he generates, the more celebrities who publicly plead his case, the more organizations and movements that march, the more stories and media coverage, the less hirable he becomes.  This has nothing to do with athletic ability, nor does it have anything to do with politics or race.  Rather, it has everything to do with business.

The emotion and “noise” surrounding Kaepernick is currently being directed at the NFL, its commissioner, its teams and team ownership.  With 32 teams and a very public commissioner, in raw numbers, each team simply has to shoulder 3% of the heat.  However, the team that hires him would then take-on all the baggage he brings.  All the noise, the emotion, the attention, the vitriol, the passionate supporters, the messaging, the questions, the disruptions.  All of it, all the time.  Thus, Colin Kaepernick cannot be hired by any NFL team.

The only thing harder than hiring someone is firing someone.  While it sounds harsh, it is  reality.  While it might be tempting to hire Colin Kaepernick, especially as injuries mount over the course of an NFL season, and he is someone with a very rare skill set – NFL quarterbacks are not easily found – he simply brings too much baggage.  And if an organization decided to accept all that hiring him entailed, the idea of not playing him and potentially having to fire him – it is simply not viable.  It is a sad irony, the more people, and his fellow players, try to support and help Colin Kaepernick find work, the less hirable he becomes.

 

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The “Too Valuable” Fallacy

“To every thing there is a season” or so said Pete Seeger and the Byrds, or the Book of Ecclesiastics in the King James Version of the Bible, depending on one’s preference.  And in keeping with the ends of the personal preference paradigm, Fox News has shared a classic business lesson.  No, not “those” kinds of lessons.  This is one of those timeless lessons of business, of life, of organizations and leadership.  Ford did it with Lee Iacocca.  The 49ers traded Montana and the Colts let Peyton go to Denver.  The Today Show let Katie go, ESPN has lost almost everyone, and even MJ and the Bulls came to an end.  And every company in history has parted ways with their top sales person.  Eventually, there comes a time when those “too valuable” are simply not that valuable.

Fox News as an organization has demonstrated that maxim that “no one person is more valuable than the overall organization”.  Everything else about Fox News aside, there is no denying, they have put the good of the organization above some of the most “valuable” personalities in the infotainment industry.  For various reasons, which we will not discuss or debate, Fox News has parted ways with two hugely successful personalities in Bill O’Reilly and Megan Kelly.  Vastly different scenarios, but the fundamental truth remains:  the organization was placed ahead of the individuals.

It is quite easy to fall into the leadership trap that the team, the organization, the business, the company, cannot survive without the “top performer”.  While it is true that great talents, performers, sales people, operations leaders, analysts, skilled craftsman, or the uncounted millions of committed team members are all special, there are some that just seem to have more of an impact.  They apparently are the one generating the lion’s share of the revenue, that are the driving force in innovation and change, that are the glue that holds the team together, that are simply “too valuable”.  Yet eventually, there comes a time.

It was a key component of military life, no one is indispensable; the mission and the team come before the individual…no matter whom it might be.  The same holds in sports, entertainment, and business.  Sure, those special “stars” can have an enormous impact, but the Bulls remained relevant without MJ, the Broncos have won after Elway (thanks Peyton), the Today Show is back on top, ESPN marches on, and Ford has continued to build cars.  And the country carries on regardless of who is in which office.  In fact, quite often organizations and individuals flourish after the split.  “A time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing” as the lyric or verse reminds us.

It is challenging for leaders to take the long view when the decision is at hand, but while the temptation is there to make “just one exception” for that great talent; to retain and profit from that special person a little longer, let Fox News and Bill O’Reilly pass through your mind.  He was a ratings and revenue goldmine for the network, and while his particular scenario made for a relatively easy decision, most are more of the Megan Kelly variety – tough calls, but in the end no one is indispensable.  Ever.

 

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Being Correct and Being Right

There are accidents, mistakes, “missteps” and “misspeaking”, errors, glitches, oops, oversights, old fashioned screw ups, and then there are just complete debacles.  United Airlines and their CEO Oscar Munoz are in the middle of an ongoing series of self-inflicted mistakes.  They have moved from a comedy of errors that will literally cost them tens of millions to becoming pop culture icons…for all the wrong reasons.  They are the butt of jokes, memes, hashtags and certainly in the crosshairs of countless law firms.  In short, they are in a real mess.

None of us will ever truly know the whole story, and in the end it does not make one ounce of difference.  The damage to both the company and Mr. Munoz has been done.  They will be living with this mess and its fallout.  While not inclined to pile on, I am reminded of an old leadership adage:

“You do not have to always be correct, but you should always be right.”

It was a phrase, well actually a sentiment, while phrased differently depending on the situation, but a leadership maxim that was repeatedly drilled into me over the years.  The idea that doing the right thing is always the proper decision.  While not often, but there will be times that the “right thing” might not be the “correct thing”.  The spirit of the law, the intention of the law, trumps the letter of the law.  That sometimes sound judgement is more important than “going by the book”, that being a compassionate leader is more important than being a by-the-numbers manager.

Were the gate agents, the crew, security, etc. all doing what the manual said? More than likely the answer is yes.  Was doing exactly what the book said right?  Clearly not.  While we can all acknowledge that policies, procedures, “the book”, the law, etc. exist for tried and true reasons, not the least of which is to avoid mistakes, but there still exists the need for logic and good judgement, and it is incumbent on leaders to both exercise said logic and judgement, and to empower their people to exercise the same.  And when it comes to working with other people, there is no more critical time for sound judgement and logic.

In an era where automation, binary decision trees, micromanagement, 360 reviews, quarterly reports, litigious fear and corporate policies drive the daily decisions making, it is wise to sometimes pause.  A leader, and everyone, need to take a look at the bigger picture, consider the message, the audience, and above all the individuals involved, and then make a decision.  It was an old adage of an earlier life, “don’t do anything you do not want to see on the front page of the paper”.  The same idea applies…do not do anything you do not want on FaceBook Live, Instagram, Twitter, etc.  Everyone has a phone, which has a camera, a video function and instant connection.  Screaming after the fact “I was just following the rules” will not be a message that resonates.

Sometimes it is better to be right than correct.

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Supreme Friends- Scalia and Ginsburg

There is a wonderful Looney Tunes cartoon with a sheep dog and a coyote, walking to “work”, being friends, having a chat, and then being polar opposites at work.  Yet, at the end of the day, when the whistle sounds, they head home as friends.  Civility, in the context of a cartoon.  Mutual Respect.  Admiration.  Professional Colleagues.  Friends.

 

Things were never quite as good as they are remembered, but it does seem the earlier generations were a bit more adapt at maintaining a balance.  Of keeping “work at work”, of “being friends after 6”, or simply just knowing a difference of opinion does not preclude friendship.  It was a different time, but the stories of the friendship, the mutual respect of Tip O’Neal and Ted Kennedy for Ronald Reagan, after 6 p.m., were legendary.  They were able to communicate, to work together, to learn from each other, to find common ground, and maybe along the way learn a bit about themselves and others.  You know, that stuff that makes everyone just a little bit better of a person.

It is refreshing to hear the stories of the Supreme Court’s most outspoken liberal and staunchly conservative member being friends.  Sharing a love of opera, vacationing together, sharing family time, meals, and respecting and admiring the other’s legal and professional acumen.  Who knows, maybe they learned a bit more about other people, another person’s point of view, the life experiences of others.  To call someone “your best buddy” is pretty darn special.

The entire “campaign season” seems to be highlighting how resolute, absolutely righteous and completely uncompromising our potential political “leaders” are.  It is all so terribly sad, but we know at least two people still understood and believed, practiced and abided by the timeless lesson – relationships matter.  Your friends do not have to be like you.  Actually we are all probably better off if they are not just like us, if we have a whole world of relationships full of different people, with different thoughts and beliefs.

Ralph and Sam, Ruth and Antonin.  Thanks for the example.

 

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February 17, 2016 · 10:04 pm