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In his prophetic post World War I poem The Second Coming, W. B. Yeats writes:

“The blood dimmed tide is loosed and everywhere

The ceremony of innocence is drowned,

The best lack all conviction, while the worst

Are full of passionate intensity.”

There is a Chinese curse that goes something like, “May you live in interesting times.” We certainly seem to be living in one of those times. Peggy Noonan called it “big history” in her Saturday Wall Street Journal column.

My friend Jennifer Brown, author of the recent Amazon business best-seller Inclusion, relates a conversation she overheard last week that got me thinking about the special challenges to entrepreneurial health in a time of severe societal polarization and instability.

Jennifer reports hearing a Starbucks barista sharing about how thoroughly sick she was of the incivility of current political discourse and that she had come to a conscious decision: The minute she logged onto Facebook and saw a single political post, she would immediately log off.

I know how she feels. The political trope of our time has never been so fraught nor the urge to disengage more alluring. Everything is overly charged. It seems folks are bloody exhausted, yet endlessly drawn back into the emotional vortex of the pure drama of a seeming manichaean struggle. (Manichaeism, if unknown to you, is an early Christian heresy that divided the world into absolutes–pure back and white, pure right or wrong–a dualism with little middle way.)

This dominant current meme is reinforced by a report I heard mentioned on NPR recently, which cited a poll from somewhere that over 40% of couples who supported different candidates in the US presidential election ended up breaking up over their differences. Wow! So much for the golden example of James Carville and Mary Matalin, Democratic and Republican strategists respectively, who seem to live a very happy domestic existence despite their political disparity.

There is an almost addictive quality to the dramatic distortion so apparent in our present political moment. It can be all-consuming to the detriment of the focused passion essential to entrepreneurial success. Much like any addiction, our exciting and disturbing political moment allows us to avoid and skirt the very real challenges posed by our essential businesses and personal lives. It is just so much easier to fling ourselves into the exciting societal/political drama than to face the quotidian challenges of everyday life and business. It’s like embracing an escapist sugar high.

This is not to say that political passion and idealism of any stripe are not necessary and wonderful. I respect idealism, of course. Most successful entrepreneurs are idealists. How else do they summon the indispensable courage to attempt to create something out of nothing each day? It is an act of artistic faith, as well as of personal will.

There is an intuitive wisdom in the decision of the young barista mentioned above who chooses to cut off any further political discourse rather than get caught up in ad hominem manichaean disputation. It is sometimes necessary to disengage temporarily. It may well be a healthful disengagement from present polarities to maintain a practical and mindful center. There is no shame in keeping your attention on the main business chance.

Successful entrepreneurs are nothing if not practical people. They are risk-takers but not reckless adventurers. They may live on the cutting edge, but not without shrewd calculation. To maintain that focus this may be a time for the withdrawal from the tropes of the popular meme. It may be a time of making choices as to where to place limited personal energy. Just as it is good to stay clear of individuals who are energy sucks, so is it also sometimes necessary to resist the lemming-like madness of societal drama.

Entrepreneurial practicality militates a functional utile, a nuanced understanding that truth exists in the gray non-absolutes, not in the blacks and whites of political purity. It is important to recognize a bone-deep weariness that can sap creative and functional business energy.

So, this is not a time of tolerance and the truth of “the gray.” But we do not need to surrender to distracting, uncentering angry absolutes.

As Carl Jung warns us, “We all feel the opposite of our own highest principle must be purely destructive, deadly, and evil. We refuse to endow it with any positive life force; hence we avoid and fear it.” Thanks, Carl.

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4863121221_cff7356354_b“Give me your wackos.” Those were Jeff Bezos’s reported instruction to his original executive search firm when starting Amazon.)

In his new book, Superbosses: How Exceptional Leaders Manage the Flow of Talent, Dr. Sydney Finkelstein doesn’t speak specifically about Jeff Bezos, but I suspect he would well understand and approve of Bezos’s sentiments. Finkelstein states,

“In any industry, superbosses seek out unusual qualities most bosses don’t even think about. Superbosses don’t want just the candidates whose skills enabled them to score high on some test; they want candidates whose abilities are so special, no one would think to test them. If a candidate seems to have what the superboss is after, he won’t hesitate to overrule human-resources specialists. The superboss‘ quest for superstars will override everything else.”

Sydney is the Roth Professor of Management and Director of the Tuck Executive Program at Dartmouth’s Tuck School of Business. His book Superbosses is a good read, though I do have a couple of cavils.

Finkelstein defines a superboss as “a leader who helps other people accomplish more than they ever thought possible.” They are leaders who delegate and place faith in their hires, even when the projects assigned are mission critical to their firms. They aggressively delegate meaningful and important work to their reports, their junior executives, and their employees. They know their hires will fail occasionally and they accept that. Furthermore, they create a nurturing cultural ambience that is supportive of managerial courage and thoughtful, creative risk. Superbosses put time into interaction with their employees–often working with them on the job and mentoring directly on projects, as well as giving direct feedback. They know their proteges first hand. He cites the old Reagan dictum: “Trust, but verify.” Finkelstein’s revision for superbosses is “Observe, coach, and trust. And then verify.”

Untitled-1The idea for Superbosses came out of Finkelstein’s avocation as a gourmet and foodie. He noticed that his friend Alice Waters, founder of Chez Panisse in Berkeley, California, seemed to generate an exceptionally large group of successful acolytes. He started to research this and found that, indeed, the people who worked for Waters, including sous chefs, waiters, bakers and even busboys, went on to enormous independent success as chef/entrepreneur/owners.

From there Sydney interviewed hundreds of business leaders over a ten year period, looking for those who personally and culturally generated what he calls “trees of talent.” He focuses on 18 of these business leaders. These really marvelous examples are of people like Larry Ellison, John Stewart, Lorne Michaels, Ralph Lauren, Michael Milken, Roger Corman, and even Miles Davis, to mention a few.

Two of my favorite models of Finkelstein’s superbosses are Norman Brinker of Brinker International and Bill Walsh, head coach of the San Francisco 49ers football team. Brinker was what Finkelstein calls a “hands on delegator.” He notes Brinker often would show up at his restaurants and bus tables with his employees He didn’t hesitate to share stories about his own mistakes and failures with his associates, helping create a fearless, through-branded culture. In the case of Bill Walsh, while he retired in 1989, the coaches trained by him still led 20 of the 32 teams in the NFL last year! Pretty amazing.

My favorite insight from Sydney is that the exceptional leaders he documents–leaders who create “trees of talent”–are confident enough to hire subordinates who are better than their bosses are. He says, “Superbosses take chances on people, and tolerate more churn if it means finding the right people later.”

I could not agree more. Though I do not consider myself a superboss, my own philosophy is to hire only people better than myself at my firm Corporate Rain International and turn ’em loose. Within the context of a deeply imbued service culture, I only want “bosses” working for me–bosses who can efficiently bring their best talents and full passion to their job without micromanagement. And that includes the receptionist. (If you want to read more on this subject, try my Inc. column of August 29, 2016. [“Why Giving Your Employees Autonomy is Crucial to Business Success”]

walsh-050736_original_crop_northSo bravo to Sydney Finkelstein. His book Superbosses is an impeccably researched, truly useful and actionable guide for leaders wanting to create “trees of talent.” While I do have a minor quibble or two (Sydney can be a bit didactically repetitive with some of his writing), this book offers an original, accessible, and learnable new way to approach HR and leadership development.

I like what Kevin Roberts, Executive Chairman of Saatich & Saatchi Worldwide, says on the back of Superbosses. To wit, “This book could make some bosses angry–and that’s a good thing. Finkelstein’s examination of what actually makes a legendary leader goes against the grain of much standard management ‘best practice’ and offers a whole new way to think about talent.” Well said, Kevin. Thank you.

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Dolly_Parton_2011Dolly Parton once said, “Above everything else I’ve done, I’ve always said I have more guts than talent.”

I suspect Dr. Angela Duckworth might well endorse Dolly’s intuition that guts trumps talent.

I was doing some routine work at my desk last Tuesday and was listening with half an ear to the Brian Lehrer morning show on the local PBS radio station here in New York. He was interviewing Duckworth, a psychology professor at the University of Pennsylvania and a MacArthur “Genius” Grant winner. Duckworth has just written a book called Grit:  The Power of Passion and Perseverance.  I got fascinated listening to her and, when Lehrer mentioned she was speaking and signing books in person that very night at Chappaqua Public Library, I immediately made a reservation and trundled up there.  Well worth it.

Duckworth’s essential thesis is that the key differentiator for achieving success in business and in life is simply something she calls “grit.”  She defines grit as a combination of “passion and perseverance for achieving long-term goals.”  For Duckworth, it is the real key to why some people succeed and others don’t. Passion she defines as falling in love with something and staying in love. Per perseverance, she says, “Grit is living life like it’s a marathon, not a sprint.”  (By way of illustration, she had Will Shortz, the puzzle master for the New York Times and NPR stand up from the audience.  51aje84UleL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_She cited him personally as a perfect example of grit [impassioned perseverance]—who against all odds and discouragement, made a great success for himself in a field most folks would find just plain silly.  He actually is the only person in the world to hold a degree in enigmatology, the study of puzzles.  Shortz said, “If you are tired of puzzles, you are tired of life!”  Passion, indeed.)

Her book is rich with case studies that are counterintuitive to popular assumptions about success.  She reports a study she did early on about army cadets at West Point.  (As a great admirer of modern military management and leadership, I was particularly interested in this.)  West Point accepts about 1,200 of the over 14,000 applicants they receive each year, but 20% drop out before graduation.  A great many of the dropouts occur in the first two weeks during a process called “Beast Barracks” which seems to be (intentionally) hell on earth.

West Point rates its plebes on what is called a Whole Candidate Score, which is basically a measurement of innate abilities. It turns out those who ranked highest on the Whole Candidate Score were not the ones who best survived “Beast” (as “Beast Barracks is called at the Academy.)  Duckworth developed instead what she calls a “Grit Scale” which grades the plebes on statements like, “I finish what I begin” or “New ideas and projects sometimes distract me from previous ones.”  Those who score highest on grit survive Beast Barracks best—and are the ones most likely to excel at West Point.

imagesDuckworth came by her initial intuitions working as a middle-school math teacher in NYC. She noticed that her math “stars” were not her brightest students but simply the most determined.  This observation inspired her to get her Ph. D. in psychology and to begin her ongoing research on grit.

Much like Malcolm Gladwell’s, Dr. Duckworth’s research often surprises.  She challenges preconceptions about how far our talent and innate potential really carry us. For example, she cites a study of Ivy League undergraduates which shows that the smarter the students were, as measured by SATs, the less gritty they were. Her case studies of gritty people include Jamie Dimon of Chase Bank, Pete Carroll of the Seattle Seahawks, Steve Young of the San Francisco 49ers, Jeff Bezos of Amazon, and many more known and less known.

Grit  is certainly a useful read for any entrepreneur. Its research seems convincing.  However, a lot of what Duckworth talks about is preternaturally baked in to most successful small business founders already. They might find themselves (like my daughter) saying, “Well, duh.”  If I have a personal quibble with Grit it is that I would have liked to have heard a bit more about how grit can create meaning, happiness, and morality, as well as success. It is perhaps a bit spiritually thin.

11791573_91bde70979If one wants to winnow down Duckworth’s message it is much like the guy in New York who asks how he gets to Carnegie Hall. The answer being, of course, “Practice.  Practice.  Practice.”

Not profound, but usefully true. Dr. Duckworth’s conclusions are somewhat similar to Malcolm Gladwell’s in Outliers.  Note Gladwell’s “10,000 hour rule”  for the achievement of mastery.

Writer John Ortberg puts the essence of grit pretty succinctly.  He says, “Over time, grit is what separates fruitful lives from aimlessness.”  Angela Duckworth would certainly agree.

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EL3A2844-bioIf you’re looking for a startlingly honest take on entrepreneurship, look no further than The Poetry of Small Business: An Accidental Entrepreneur’s Search for Meaning by Timothy Askew.

A long-time columnist for Inc.com, Tim writes from his heart with a passion and personality that are rarely seen in business writing. He takes on topics often ignored in business, such as the upside to eccentricity, the downside to “look at me-ism” and smartphone slavery, and the ultimate entrepreneurial challenge: loneliness. Tim’s inclination to take a stance on subjects and risk rubbing people the wrong way has no doubt earned him a following online.

Full disclosure, I might be a little biased because I helped edit the book. But honestly, Tim is an excellent writer who has a unique voice. He’s insightful, funny, and I enjoyed working with him very much.

You can (and should) buy the book on Amazon.

Here’s what other people are saying about The Poetry of Small Business:

The_Poetry_of_Small__Cover_for_Kindle“I have long been an admirer and reader of Tim Askew’s wonderful weekly blog, Making Rain, and so I am hardly surprised to find that ‘The Poetry of Small Business’ is a beautifully written ode to entrepreneurship, filled with piercing insights into and wise reflections on the entrepreneurial life. But don’t be misled by the title: This book is also an immensely practical guide to getting the most out of your business.”

Bo Burlingham, editor-at-large of Inc. Magazine and best-selling author of Small Giants and Finish Big

“Tim Askew has a gift for identifying and naming topics on the minds of entrepreneurs—and then providing fresh perspectives that make you stop and think differently.”

Danny Meyer, CEO of Union Square Hospitality Group and best-selling author of Setting the Table

Danny_Meyer_FT_Charity_Wine_Dinner_2010“If you want to know what it’s really like to be an entrepreneur, read this. And if you want hints about success, real hints, real success, then really read this book again. Slowly.”

Howard Moskowitz, Chairman, Mind Genomics Associates and best-seller author of Selling Blue Elephants

 

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In the 1992 movie A League of Their Own, Tom Hanks, playing Jimmy Dugan, the crusty, alcoholic manager of a professional women’s baseball team, delivered the now famous cinematic pep talk that concludes with the statement, “There’s no crying in baseball!!”

Well, my fellow entrepreneurs, there was crying in baseball on July 29, 2015, by 23-year-old New York Mets infielder Wilmer Flores. When Flores took the field for the top of the eighth inning he was crying because he had just heard the (false) report that he had been traded to the Milwaukee Brewers. He sobbed, very publicly, his way through the inning. It was a level of naked vulnerability I have seldom seen in professional sports. He took his position with red eyes and tear-lined cheeks and throughout the inning was seen wiping his nose and upper lip on his glove. At one point he wiped both his eyes on his sleeves. It was a truly touching and guileless evincement of human vulnerability.

But what is really interesting and surprising about this incident is that it has turned this middling, quiet, unheralded baseball player into a cult hero for the nonce. The Flores incident has tapped into a cultural longing for the real, for the authentic. During August, Steiner Sports, a sports memorabilia company, started offering signed pictures of Flores at $80 a pop ($215 with frame!) and can’t keep them in stock.

Likewise, let us consider the phenomenon of Donald Trump. In addition to making the race for U.S. president enormously entertaining, Trump has tapped into a zeitgeist that longs for the real. Maybe vulnerability is not the first word that comes to mind when thinking of him, but Trump is also speaking into this longing with his startlingly un-PC spontaneity. He is frankly telling the truth–his truth–uncensored by societal cliches of what is deemed acceptable among traditional elites.

The Flores and Trump phenomenons point to a new and universal yearning for simple unalloyed candor.

Donald_Trump_August_2015There is a lesson and a learning here for those of us trying to lead our small companies successfully. And that is that the command-and-control trope, long so dominant in corporate leadership thinking, is less and less efficacious. (Note the negative repercussions for Jeff Bezos of last week’s New York Times article documenting managerial bullying at Amazon.) There is a growing cultural uneasiness with executives who govern from fear and the heavy hand, and who swing their big corporate leadership dicks with statements like “lead, follow, or get out of the way.” Leaders so enamored of their own top-down power are old-fashioned in a world where effective organizational hierarchies are increasingly horizontal.

Georg Vilmetter and Yvonne Sell wrote an interesting essay for the Harvard Business Review website last July in which they divided executive leaders by the type of power driving them. They define these two types as the egocentric and the altrocentic. Vilmetter and Sell say the following:

“Egocentric leaders tend to be concerned only with personalized power–power that gets them ahead. Altrocentric leaders, on the other hand, derive power from motivating, not controlling others. The altrocentric leader who is intrinsically motivated by socialized power, and who draws strength and satisfaction from teaching, team building, and empowering others, will be able to handle the increased pressure of tomorrow’s business environment. They understand that they need not ‘have all the answers’ themselves, and this mindset and willingness to turn to others for help better equips them to handle the stress of the uneasy chair.”

hqdefaultWhich brings me back to Mr. Trump and Mr. Flores and the public’s hunger for the no-bullshit Real. We respond to these two very different men because we viscerally long to find simple, direct truths for ourselves and in our confusing, complicated world.

Brene Brown, in her recent book Daring Greatly: How the Courage To Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, says this. “There is no triumph without vulnerability.” Thank you Sister Brown.

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