Do You Want To Be There?

Years ago, I was having dinner with one of my daughters at a local restaurant and we got to talking about the classes she was taking at her high school. Even when I was a student – and your own experience is no doubt the same – I was struck by the enormous variation in teacher quality at every level of my education. And so as we were talking about her own teachers, I asked: “What do you think makes your best teachers great? What separates the great teachers you’ve had from the other ones?”

She immediately answered it – in a way that someone answers a question they’ve already thought a lot about – and it was an answer I’ll never forget. When I asked her what made her best teachers great, she immediately said “they want to be there”.

They want to be there.

This tells us those teachers are bringing their passion and energy to the classroom. Their customers and fellow employees students could immediately tell that these teachers weren’t mailing it in, and these same customers and fellow employees students were infected by the teachers’ passion.

Most of us have lost someone close to us (bear with me during this sudden transition). When that happens, we grieve and reflect upon how short even a long life can seem to be. We also recognize that our own time is limited.

Epistemology and the Earth Apple

As you can tell by the title of this post, I tend to ignore the common title tropes of the blogosphere. If I were in the business of attracting as many page views as possible, I’d title this post something like “The 3 Secrets of Fabulous People”.  But I write for smart, witty (and already fabulous) people like you!  So what gives with the title?

Behraim’s Earth Apple

Epistemology is a branch of philosophy that concerns itself with what we know, the nature of human knowledge, and what is knowable (you know?). It challenges our beliefs. How can you be sure that is true? Does our knowledge truly represent reality?

We live in an age where technical and medical leaps forward convince us that we know a lot. We carry a subtle sense of superiority when we think about the rubes from centuries past who thought leeches were an innovative form of medical treatment. Perhaps even those people thought themselves superior to the generations before them who hadn’t yet discovered “leeches 2.0”.

The idea of epistemology has been in my mind after listening to this a16z podcast on the advances in mapping technology. I’ve always had a love of maps. The “old” 2D paper maps of yesterday (as opposed to the digital 2D map on your phone or in your car) are, to me, like the difference between reading a paper book and watching a YouTube video. The latter conveys information well and may require concentration, but is passive. Paper maps require active reading and imagination, where we convert the information into something useful and have to find our route rather than having it show up as a magical blue line on a computer screen.

In the podcast, the guests talked about Martin Behaim’s Erdapfel Globe (“Erdapfel” being German for “Earth Apple”).  Created in 1492, it was Behaim’s best approximation for the earth’s layout. Painstakingly created from his many travels as a merchant and mariner, it is the oldest existing globe known today. And if you’re like me, when your brain registered the auspicious year of 1492 you immediately thought of something else that year is famous for (when “Columbus sailed the ocean blue”).

We wouldn’t use Behraim’s globe to circumnavigate the earth today due to a few minor mistakes – for instance, the lack of North or South America.  His globe represents Europe as one large landmass, with various islands around it. Japan is too big.

It was with this limited understanding of the world that Columbus took off that same year on what he believed was a voyage to India, and that’s what makes me think about us, today.

Fear of Public Speaking? Five “P’s” to Help Harness Your Energy.

“According to most studies, people’s number one fear is public speaking. Number two is death. Death is number two. Does that seem right? That means to the average person, if you have to go to a funeral, you’re better off in the casket than doing the eulogy.”
– Jerry Seinfeld

We often read that people’s fear of public speaking is greater than their fear of death. The science behind this claim is probably dubious, but like any other juicy factoid this one has a life of it’s own.  I have spoken in front of many audiences, and some people mistakenly think that I don’t get nervous before walking on stage. But I do, and I want to share with you two mindsets that can help you as your heart rate elevates, your palms start to sweat, and your “fight or flight” instinct tells you to run for the nearest exit.

If these mindsets were on Sesame Street, we would say that they were “brought to you by the letter P” since each use alliteration and the letter P to help us remember them.

Lies, Movies and the Snowball Effect

Unless you’re a saint – and if you are I’m not sure what you’re doing reading my blog – you probably remember some time in your past when you told a white lie (at least it seemed white at the time), but then found yourself having to talk your way around it later (more lies). Eventually you find yourself in a bit of a jam.  I experienced this more than a few times when I was a kid, and fortunately I learned my lesson: the first lie is the biggest one.

I was thinking about this recently when I watched The Wizard of Lies, the HBO movie about infamous ponzi schemer Bernie Madoff, starring Robert DeNiro. Richard Dreyfuss also starred as Madoff in an earlier miniseries. I thought both versions were excellent.

The Madoff story is amazing in how badly people got fleeced – $65 billion (that’s “billion” with a “b”). But at the same time the key elements of the story are boring and predictable. Madoff didn’t set out to fleece investors of that sum. In the DeNiro version, Madoff explains to his flabbergasted family that he always thought he could make it back up and catch up to the lies. But he never did, the market tanked in 2008 causing people to liquidate the assets (they thought) they had, and the rest is history.

The Three “C’s” of Interviewing

I was talking to someone about interviewing. I told him I have found that interviewing is easy to do poorly and very hard to do well. Like any skill, it requires training and practice to refine and improve, yet few companies invest much time in developing interview skills. It’s ironic how little time is spent developing a skill that directly impacts the quality of hires a company makes. It’s like expecting an amateur to do a good job removing your appendix without giving him any training.

One of the all-time classic interviews, from the movie Office Space

As I thought more about interviewing, I recalled a great bit of wisdom I once heard on the subject of interviewing, and I pass it along here.

It is a rule to keep in mind when you’re interviewing a candidate. There are times when, as an interviewer, you’re distracted. You believe you have more important things to do (many times an interviewer is interviewing candidates who will end up in another organization if they’re hired at all).  Or maybe you decide early in the interview that this candidate is a poor fit, and spend the rest of the interview nodding your head and trying to look interested. Or you pretend to be a hard-ass to see how they’ll react to difficult personalities. Or you got to the interview late and plan to leave early.

Whatever the case, there are interviews where we don’t put our best foot forward. It is at those moments that it is best to remember the Three C’s: Every person you interview in your career is a future….

Colleague

Customer

Competitor

In all three cases, you want them to remember you, and your company, in the best possible light.

Interviewing takes preparation and focus. It is easy to get lazy. At those moments, it might help you to remember the three C’s.

Good luck!

P.S. For past posts on interviewing, go here and here.

Fiction vs Fact in Decision Making

Every now and again I hear a quote that grabs my attention.  Usually, when I really like the quote I’ll enter it into a document I keep of interesting quotes .  I’ve been doing it for years and that document was the source I used for the e-book I wrote for subscribers to this site (to get the e-book, simply enter your email address and first name in the signup box on the right). I ran across one recently that I enjoyed and wanted to reflect on with you.

It was in a recent earnings call for JP Morgan Chase. The most interesting feature of an earnings call can be the Q&A section, where analysts ask the CEO/CFO questions about the recent results, the future outlook, and the overall state of the business.  Most CEOs are very disciplined during these Q&A sessions, where a misstep could cause the stock to plummet (a discipline that the former CEO of Trump International appears not to have learned). While responding to an analyst’s question, Chase CEO Jamie Dimon said the following:

“I would just add as a policy matter, we make economic decisions not accounting decisions. Accounting is a fiction.”

While I may be risking objections from my many friends in the noble accounting profession, I have to say “amen”.

We are surrounded by fictional constructs that cause us to make bad decisions. Sapiens, the book by Yuval Noah Harari that entranced Bill Gates among others, asserts that most of the institutions we take for granted – money, countries, religions – are mere figments of Sapiens’ imaginations. While I don’t buy everything that Professor Harari is selling in his book, it is true that when faced with important decisions we are confronted with swirling data points that have varying relationships with what is real.

When Dimon said “we make economic decisions not accounting decisions”, he is telling investors that Chase seeks to build the value of their institution through smart decisions that grow the company over time. When he says “economic decisions”, he is saying “when presented with a decision we will decide what will maximize the real financial benefit to our bank” as opposed to deciding what will look best in the near term financial statements.

This applies to investing as well. An investing quote I enjoy (also entered into my personal quote archive) I first heard from Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, who was actually quoting Warren Buffet who himself was quoting the actual originator of the phrase, Benjamin Graham:

Are You Ready for Change?

When I was at my Military Intelligence Officer’s course in the mid-1980’s, our coursework was almost completely focused on encountering Soviet armored divisions storming into Germany’s Fulda Gap, despite the fact a) that battle had already been thoroughly planned and we weren’t going to add any insights, and b) it was clear at that point that the Cold War was shifting to new venues. Within four years of that time the Berlin Wall had fallen and I was in a war in the Middle East.

Here’s another example of how organizations have been resistant to change: In the hilarious memo below, written in 1935, Col. Hoffman – a member of the Army Air Corps – objects to taking “Equitation” (horsemanship) classes in part because he fails “… to see that horses have any place in the science of aviation”. Unsurprisingly, his request was denied.

It’s not just the military however. We humans are terrible at change.  It frightens us – a fact that deserves some consideration given the fact change is coming faster than ever.

Luddites were people who smashed machinery they saw threatening their jobs.  Now it’s a term used to describe hopelessly backwards-looking people who think they can beat back technology. Nobody wants to be called a Luddite.

When the first railway opened, detractors said that the human body was not meant to travel at 30 miles per hour and could possibly melt at that speed (similar concerns were voiced about super-sonic flight several decades later).

The newly-invented telephone was claimed by some to be an instrument of the devil. Versions of this accusation have been voiced about virtually every other new communication method, except for the fax machine – which may in fact have actually been an instrument of the devil (word of the fax machine’s death has not yet reached the HIPAA-regulated medical community: “no we can’t email your health information directly to your personal, password-protected email address, but we can send images of that same medical info to a fax machine located in a high-traffic area at your place of work”).

It’s easy to be smart about bad ideas of the past. But we humans repeat our mistakes.  Here are some changes that are coming:

Amazing Grace

One of the greatest sources of instruction and motivation is learning about great people who came before us.  One of these stories is the story of Grace Hopper – aka “Amazing Grace” by those impressed with her accomplishments.  Grace was a computer scientist in the 1940s until her death in the 1980s.  Also – get this – she was a Rear Admiral in the U.S. Navy.  Quite a big story for a small woman during years when the barriers to women in technology were even greater than they are today.

To illustrate how uncommon it was to find women in technology circles, I remember back to an incident that occurred to me at an airport probably over 25 years ago.  It was pre-9/11, but airport security was basically similar as it is today, albeit with less theatre and dumping out of water bottles.  Laptops had become more commonplace and, as a way to determine they were actually functional computers it was common for security personnel to ask travelers to turn on their machine. Once they saw something appear on the screen they would be satisfied and allow the traveler to pass.

On this one day, I happened to be carrying my Gateway laptop (many of you remember that company, a fascinating story in it’s own right).  The problem with my Gateway was that at unpredictable times it would refuse to turn on despite my pushing the power button – which when you think about it is a pretty big problem if a user should ever want to actually use the computer.

It turns out it’s an even bigger problem when you’re standing in an airport and a security guard is looking at you suspiciously while you fruitlessly peck at various keys.

So I used my mobile phone (which probably was the size of a brick) to call Nancy, one of the IT people at the telecommunications company I worked for.  I knew Nancy well – she was great. Nancy told me that they’d been having this problem with other laptops and I should flip it over, open the battery cover, extract the (massive) battery for a few seconds, replace the battery and then re-try.  I did this, and it worked.

The security guard who had been supervising all of this was an older guy – probably in his sixties. He had clearly been listening as I was talking to Nancy, and as I’m putting my laptop in my bag, the following conversation ensues:

Primum Non Nocere

Often cited as a key tenet in the Hippocratic Oath, primun non nocere is translated as “first, do no harm”. It is one of the great supporting ideas of both ancient and modern medicine: sometimes it is better to do nothing than it is to do something and risk harm to the patient.

Primun non nocere has applicability in our interconnected worlds and industries. In a rush to innovate/disintermediate/cannibalize existing markets and products, if we don’t consider how our efforts impact the final customer experience, we run the risk of doing harm.  I think the great comic Steven Wright captured how mysterious and interconnected the world is – delivered in his signature deadpan tone of voice:

“In my house there’s this light switch that doesn’t do anything. Every so often I would flick it on and off just to check. Yesterday, I got a call from a woman in Madagascar. She said, ‘Cut it out.’”

In my career I have worked with a financial brand that you almost certainly use. They are enormous. They make billions of dollars in their sleep. And they know they have a great position, so I have often heard people from this company repeat the following mantra, which I’m sure is beaten into their heads during new employee orientation: “defend the castle”. They are primarily worried about doing no harm, but that concept isn’t reserved only for behemoths.

Clayton Christensen and others have pointed out the challenge of castle defending in markets where attackers nibble their way up from the bottom.  And I certainly have written a great deal on the importance of innovation and working smart.

But if you have customers, and they’re depending upon your product or service to deliver a great experience, primun non nocere is a great idea to consider as you’re designing the next “big thing” you’re thinking about.

We don’t want our doctors to operate on us based upon whims.  Similarly, our customers want us to invest the same care in our own efforts. They want us to deliver on the jobs they hired us to do: delivering on our brand promise and product commitment and make them look good in the process.

Easy to say. Hard to do.

Good luck!

Two Lessons from Elon Musk

Elon Musk. It’s hard to read any business publication and not run across some story of the Thomas Edison/Henry Ford of our time.  I read two particular stories – one where Elon was used to inspire action, and the other where Elon himself pledged to take action. Let’s see what we can learn from both examples.

The first example, curiously, is a BMW employee meeting. As detailed in this article, BMW employees were brought to an airplane hanger and Elon’s sinister face was used to put the fear of …well…Elon into the assembled throng:

“Inside a bright auditorium at an abandoned airfield near Munich, rows of men and women gaze at images flashing by on a giant screen: a Mercedes sedan; Porsche and Jaguar SUVs; the face of Elon Musk. “We’re in the midst of an electric assault,” the presenter intones as the Tesla chief’s photo pops up. “This must be taken very seriously.”

The audience is composed of BMW Group employees flown in for a combination pep rally/horror film intended to make them afraid about the future of the industry. The takeaway: The market is shifting in ways that were unimaginable just a few years ago, and BMW must adapt. The subtext is a recognition that the company has gone from leader to laggard.”

The scene above sounds a bit like the horror scenes force-fed to Alex in A Clockwork Orange, or perhaps the iconic George Orwell-themed Apple TV Ad introducing the first Macintosh. I like to believe the film was accompanied by some thrilling Wagner music.

My take:

  • BMW is smart to pick a villain. People respond better when they can envision an external threat (something, sadly, that political leaders know too well).
  • If you’re Elon Musk, you know that when the competition is using you to scare their employees you’re doing something right. Not that Elon really cares.
  • That said, the truest barriers to established brands’ success in the new era are seldom external.  As Clayton Christensen and others have pointed out, the eating of existing market share is consumed in small bites and enabled by business models that are constructed on new technologies and business processes.

My guess is that BMW spent quite a bit producing their internal horror flick, flying people in for the pep rally and feeding them excellent German sausages and beer.  Meanwhile, back at Tesla….