Archive for the ‘leadership’ Category

Life and Tetris

July 28, 2009

tetris - unsafeI like finding metaphors for life in what seems like absurd places. I was laying in bed playing Tetris as I floated off to sleep last night, and the following analogy struck me.

Life is like a game of Tetris. The objecct in both is to use the space and the resources most effectively and efficiently to achieve results. Like in Tetris, in life (at least this is my life goal), the goals  is to get the most meaning out of it, fitting as many tetris pieces (goals / accomplishments) into a finite space.

Huge gaping holes left when pieces don’t line up correctly remind me of wasted opportunities, things left undone and unsaid, caused by mistakes that we make. We all make mistakes, and they are absolutely human and a huge part of learning, but you must realize that you can still attempt to fill gaping holes afterwards.  I do not believe in do-overs, and neither does life allow it. But you can fill these holes with knowledge gained from the experience and the mistakes that you made. You can go back and say the things that were left unsaid, and attempt to  do the things that were left undone, but only if it makes sense at a later point. Some black holes will forever remain black holes.

Like a game of Tetris, the pace starts out slow in the begining and speeds up to an almost-frenetic pace, depending on what level you get to. Like in life, it speeds up at a precise time when one would give anything to have time go slower.

In life, and in Tetris, it’s all about those perfect moments when everything fits harmoniously with minimum black space. Those are the moments of bliss, when your work is aligned with your passion, and the people in your life are an organic fit to your grand vision of life. Then the mistakes made and the gaping holes of the past don’t matter anymore.

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The Root of All Evil?

July 15, 2009

moneyI have been thinking about this post for quite some time. I recently re-read “Francisco’s Money Speech” from “Atlas Shrugged” by Ayn Rand. I have no idea why I had this neatly stapled printout laying around in my apartment, but I did. I read it, and it got me thinking. The money speech, if you aren’t familiar with it, it deals with our tension with money as a medium of exchange, the value of it, and the effect is has on people and events.

“So you think that money is the root of all evil?” said Francisco d’Anconia. “Have you ever asked what is the root of money? Money is a tool of exchange, which can’t exist unless there are goods produced and men able to produce them.” It amazes me how often we forget this simple truth. The natural human response to a lack of money is to be jealous of and blame people with money. Too often we jump to this response that’s driven by a “zero-sum” thinking about money and we focus on splitting up the pie into smaller pieces and taking each other’s pieces vs. increasing the pie. From a business perspective, it pays to grow a category and thus growing the brands within the category, more so than splitting up the category of the same size into more pieces or stealing share away from others, because brand-switchers will do just that: switch from brand A to brand B and back to brand A.

There’s nothing wrong with taking share away from competitors; all I am saying is that enduring long-term growth comes from continuously developing the category, as well as your brand. Whichever way you choose to grow sales, the only way to do so is by providing value continuously to your customers and consumers. Providing value sometimes takes upfront investment and delayed profits. And herein lies the problem: in our society that’s overly focused on short-term (especially as perpetuated by Wall Street), investing in the long-term is often unpopular. Focus on short-term, sometimes at the expense of creating real value, is what brought this economy (and subsequently the world economy) to its knees. Toxic mortgages were repackaged in a way that allowed to benefit in the short term and delay the discovery of the toxicity into the future. Short term and greed won out. Creating value and long term became unpopular. And now we are reaping the fruits of this behavior. I especially love this humorous primer on toxic assets.

When people and corporations act this way, profiting without creating value, they are building a house of cards. When they let greed rule them, with no regard for long-term benefit for customers, stakeholders and employees, money becomes “the root of all evil” and stops being a medium of exchange. When you start to exchange money for assets and products without value, the whole system will eventually crumble, and this is a guarantee. Turns out, it’s not money that’s the root of all evil – not the honest money anyway. It’s greed that’s the root of all evil.

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Try not to lose your voice

June 30, 2009

voiceI have been pondering this topic for a couple of weeks now; it’s been like a splinter in my mind. What brought this on was one of the liveliest exchanges I had ever had with my Twitter followers. Here’s some context: in the wake of the Iranian election, a lot of people on Twitter chose to change their pictures to green or spread a green overlay on top of their avatar. Don’t get me wrong, I support democracy as much as the next gal. In fact, I can appreciate it a lot more than some others do, due to the fact that I grew up in a repressive Communist society, where freedom of speech was nonexistent, snitches were plentiful, and Siberian camps were full of “dissidents.” As much as I consider what’s happening in Iran a travesty, I consider veiling your avatar in green a non-genuine, lazy and conformist attempt to follow the latest trend. So to stir up some discussion (because that’s why I am there: to discuss, express myself, and form relationships), I asked Twitter why they chose to do it. I wasn’t doubting the authenticity of all the green avatars, but because everyone seemed to do it at the same time, I couldn’t help but wonder if only a small portion of those people actually researched the cause. Of course, there are exceptions: there are some people with family and friends over there who are quite well educated on the issue or feel passionately about it. I am not stating that no one is passionate about it, I just seriously doubt that *everyone* is passionate about it.  Moreover, it strikes me as a half-assed attempt, done because you feel like doing something, but don’t have the bandwidth to do anything meaningful. If I was an Iranian blogger, I do not think that seeing an overlay or changed coordinates would do much for me. However, people raising money or another act of actual activism (alliteration intended) would go further.

Moreover, I think that such a display of conformity was a slap in the face of democracy. By trying so hard to fit in, without really understanding what you are doing, you are undermining the definition of democracy. Democracy is about choices, not following the herd mindlessly (that’s what they did in the Soviet Union). If you choose to follow the crowd, please make it a choice that you made. I think  exchanging actual thoughts on Iran and banding together to raise money go so much further than changing your avatar color. All it does is take away your voice and make your followers’ Tweetdecks look like they are “covered in Leprechaun droppings” (per my friend @toddhavens).

spamSocial media gives us all a voice. Unfortunately, a lot of times, it makes people lose their voice. This episode is not the only display of conformity on Twitter and other social media. Unfortunately, Twitter is home to more herd-like behavior. Case in point:  Follow Friday. When used sparingly and thoughtfully, it can be a valuable source of discovery, even though I think other sources, such as (thoughtful) RTs and @ replies, are better, because they offer more context and substance. If someone I respect and interact with suggests people to follow, I will at least take a look, although I have to admit, I have never followed anyone based on Follow Friday recommendation. Follow Friday was OK when it started, but like most trends on Twitter has been bastardized and spammed. Seems that every week I drown in mindless RTs of my friends’ Follow Friday recommendations. One friend includes my handle in their recommendation, then it gets retweeted by 10 spammers with zero context, and voila! my @ replies pane is full of non-relevant regurgitations of one meaningful endorsement. My question to people who do that: do you even read what you retweet? If you must participate in Follow Friday, please use your own head and give your own recommendations. I am not undermining the viral quality of social media, which is essential to all of our success. I am just asking you to think.

As with everything, I urge you, whether you are an individual or a brand, to think before you speak: online and offline. Really get to know the medium and interact with it in an authentic way. If you don’t understand why people do something, just ask. Whatever you do, please don’t follow the trend blindly; if you make a conscious choice to follow the trend, then go for it. Just promise me you will think about why you are doing something. What you put online is forever part of your brand, part of your legacy. Please don’t forget that.

Please share your thoughts: do you have any other examples? How do you develop your voice? How do you stand out amongst so much noise?

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Your Brain is Not Normal

May 27, 2009

No, you don’t have anything to be afraid of, so no need to go running to your local brain surgeon. Your brain is just fine. But it is not normal, contrary to the belief that we all hold. What I mean by that, is that we have come to normalize what we see from our vantage point: “I feel this way, I think think this way, my experience is XYZ; therefore it’s normal and everyone feels and thinks this way.” That couldn’t be further from the truth. Based on our experiences and education (formal and informal), we develop a certain prism that we apply to all subsequent events to help us understand them and place them within context of what we know. It is how we process and organize information. To add a level of complexity, our prism is constantly evolving, as we add more and more experience and education to our arsenal. Because my prism is different from yours, the same exact event can make us feel quite differently about it.

Ability to understand this nugget is the key to being an effective human being, whether it’s in personal or professional interpersonal communications, or in marketing to consumers or businesses. It’s really at the foundation of all communication. Before having a discussion with your significant other, writing that intraoffice e-mail, putting together that powerpoint deck for a presentation, writing that blogpost or sending that customer e-mail update, do a quick reality check. Try to step outside of yourself and say “Ok, I consider this normal, but does the person receiving my communication feel the same way? What prism will he / she apply to what I am communicating to him / her?” I know this sounds beyond elementary, but this is one of the biggest failures in communication. We all do it. I, for example, get so wrapped up in the social media world, that I assume that everyone blogs, tweets, podcasts, creates video content, mobile / web widgets and apps. Not so! Most people have no idea what any of those things are. However, I have come to normalize it, because those things are my reality. We are creatures of our respective environments, so please take a minute to try to extrapolate how other people’s environments and experiences have shaped their views, habits and responses to stimuli.

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How much should you listen to your customers

May 14, 2009

The recent upheaval in the Twittersphere regarding the new Twitter update dealing with @ replies has got me thinking over the past couple of days (in case you are not familiar with what the new Twitter update does, please read @whitneyhess’s blogpost which does a great job explaining it). Even though I am not going to rehash the details of the new update here, I will briefly mention that as a result, Twitter no longer shows you @ replies directed to people you don’t follow, even though you follow the writer of the tweet (this only happens when the handle of the person you don’t follow is the first word of the tweet).  I am not sure why Twitter did this; perhaps they were helping us reduce the noise that is produced by following everyone’s @ replies. However, this makes little sense, as you can adjust your settings from inside the Twitter.com site. What Twitter should’ve realized that a lot of users find @ replies beneficial to discovery of new users to follow. If someone I respect and engage with replies to someone else, I will take notice and at least click through to that person, and if I like him / her, make a decision to follow. Yes, there are ways to still explore these tweets via setting up a search in TweetDeck and other tools. However, by having everything come to my main feed, it was just that much easier. By taking the option away, Twitter has taken the ability to decide from its users.  If you give me an option to adjust what @ replies I see via settings tab, why take the decision away from me?

The above example shows that Twitter wasn’t particularly listening to its users and how they use the site.  Some companies pursue their strategy without paying much attention to what its users want. And sometimes it’s for good reason. This @ replies episode reminded me of a talk by 37Signals Jason Fried at last fall’s Web2.0 conference in NYC. Jason talked about how each product person / company needs to be a curator, carefully reviewing user suggestions for improvements, while implementing only those that make sense given the company’s strategy. This makes complete sense, especially as a company grows and acquires more users and thus more user feedback. And secondly, users don’t even know what they want most of the time. When they say they want something, sometimes it’s just a symptom of a larger problem they have to solve. As a business, you must figure out this larger problem and solve it, instead of solving by implementing piecemeal modules.

So the question still remains… When do you listen to your customers and when does not listening translate to anger (as in the Twitter example) and possible attrition?

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Humility and Leadership

November 22, 2008

As I contemplate leadership and what it means to me, humility emerges as the number one underrated trait. Why is that? Perhaps because our society rewards the outgoing / powerful / know-it-all personalities? Perhaps… Or is it because we look at our business leaders as the complete authority, and are taught in school to think “inside the box” and accept whatever corporate policy there is as the end-all-be-all? Which is a funny concept, because for such a me-me-me culture, we are certainly taught to follow and not question status quo. In school, there is always one right answer, whereas in life, that is rarely the case (well, it’s actually almost never the case).

My personal view on life is that learning is really the only mission we are tasked with carrying out. Our job is to leave this planet wiser than we came to it, while using our wisdom to effect change. However, we can’t learn if we aren’t humble, because at the core of learning is the realization that no matter how much we learn and know, we will never know everything. We will forever strive for the ultimate truth, but will never reach it. Each adversity that each person or business unit faces, each failure, must be taken as an opportunity for learning. Unfortunately, our culture doesn’t reward failure, and most corporate cultures don’t want to take risks, for the fear of failure. Taking calculated risks for the purpose of learning and getting better, so that you may eventually win, is key.  You must extract all the value that you can from each unpleasant situation. One of my favorite quotes is: “If you are hurting, you are growing” (no idea where it came from, so I can’t credit the source, although I am fairly certain it came from a motivational book).

What makes winners winners is the ability to get up quickly after falling, extract the learning aggressively and apply the lessons right away. But to do that, you  must be humble. If you aren’t, then you will likely pretend that you didn’t really fall, will issue a press conference saying that everything is OK, perhaps even muddy up the financials to disguise the problem. Humility is NOT synonymous with being a pushover or a doormat. It is simply the ability to step outside of your own mind, recognize that a mistake is being made, before it gets too late, gain input, collaborate and figure out a way  out of the situation. If you thinnk hard enough, and involve the right resources, there is always some kind of a way out. It may not solve the problem 100%, but action always beats inaction.

Bottom line is, if “The Big 3” of Detroit spent a little more time listening to the market, its customers and other inputs, they wouldn’t be in such a predicament. And yes, the auto industry malaise is mainly brough on by the credit crunch, no doubt. However, they weren’t exactly doing well before the whole crash started. On the flipside, Toyota and Honda aren’t asking for bailouts, even though they are facing the same credit issues. I am only using the auto industry as an example of an old-school, unbending, know-it-all attitude that really plagues most of Big Corporate America. I am simply using them as an example because the Big 3 have the mindshare right now. If our business leaders dropped the know-it-all ‘tude, opened themselves up to criticism, took the time to understand the needs of the market and competitive threats (come on! any MBA can do the SWAT analysis in less than 30 minutes!), then perhaps they could win. The speed with which business progresses these days, spurred by the ever-increasing pace of innovation and proliferation of information via the Web, forces companies to become nimble in order to survive. If they don’t adapt, they will eventually die. Which is why I believe the auto industry bailout is a mistake.  The current shakeup in our financial markets, which has caused a shakeup of the entire world economy, is actually a disguised opportunity to learn, adapt quickly, and separate the winners from the losers. Unfortunatley for the losers (and fortunately for the world at large), this is survival of the fittest. This is the way it should be. You must learn and adapt in order to survive. Let free markets rule. Let leadership lead with humility.

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