Archive for the ‘Entrepreneurship’ Category
There is a phenomenon in leadership, known as the “Reality Distortion Field.” The term describes a level of charismatic self-assurance so overwhelming and nigh delusional that no criticism can penetrate it, and those in its path are powerless to withstand the hype.
In this sphere, any ambition is attainable, every idea a masterpiece and any setback a negligible distraction. Such overconfidence might seem absurd on paper, but in practice it is embraced as an exceptional quality. But not everyone can get ahead simply by putting perception in a chokehold.
The term’s origin should come as no surprise: Apple drones coined it in the early 1980s to illustrate the belligerent influence of Steve Jobs. “In his presence,” as one minion put it, “reality is malleable. He can convince anyone of practically anything.” If complex tasks were scheduled in an unrealistic time frame, Jobs deemed it eminently doable; should evidence show Steve was wrong, he bent the facts to prove himself right.
Over time, claims of “Reality Distortion” have been applied to other Silicon Valley honchos. Apple’s chief rival, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer, is most notable for displays of boundless, sweaty confidence that somehow captivate industry audiences. So too is Larry Ellison, who has recently taken to harshly doling out unsolicited criticism of peers in the press (who willingly take his word as gospel).
Given their collective achievements, one might think that there’s something to the obstinate approach. In truth, they serve as outliers. Without true knowledge and ability, a cocksure leader is a liability.
Recall LifeLock CEO Todd Davis: So sure was he of his company’s identity theft protection system, Davis freely listed his social security number in television and print ads. Certainly some employees must have expressed misgivings about such a bold claim, yet Davis laid down the gauntlet. As a result, his identity was stolen thirteen times, embarrassing the company and leaving a shameful trail of fraudulent debt in his wake.
Davis assumed his confidence would carry the product. But while leaders should inspire faith, the “Reality Distortion” mindset goes a step further—even an inkling of doubt signifies weakness. This is seen in the political arena, where candidates attract slurs like “flip-flopper” over slight shifts in policy. Some contenders will stick to a line in the hope they can alter voter perceptions, no matter the risk of being caught, or the cost to their credibility.
New York gubernatorial candidate Carl Paladino is one such stubborn figure, campaigning on a “kitchen sink strategy” of persistent accusations against his opponent, Andrew Cuomo. When Paladino claimed to know of marital infidelities by Cuomo, the press asked for proof. He belligerently demurred, until eventually admitting that his allegation was hypothetical and had no substance—only to resume the lie in subsequent television appearances. For his arrogant zeal, Paladino’s prospects are on the decline. Recent polls show him trailing Cuomo, with the gap ever widening as Election Day approaches.
Leading through sheer force of overbearing will also carries a particularly undesirable side-effect: Volatility. Intimidation and abuse rank high as motivation for staff to fall in step with one’s ineffable vision, and screaming tantrums are not unheard of in these environments. Steve Jobs is himself given to rages that drive some to the verge of tears, and drive down the happiness index in Cupertino.
In his 2007 book The No Asshole Rule, author Robert Sutton deems Jobs’ effectiveness as an exception to the eponymous rule, yet acknowledges the Apple leader’s reputation for humiliating staff. Sutton otherwise promotes a prevailing wisdom that puts employee satisfaction first: Happy workers are productive and creative workers, while abuse drives up employee turnover (and potential lawsuits).
As much as budding leaders may wish to become a Jobs or Ellison, it’s not their hubris that should be emulated. Whether you attribute it to a unique confluence of factors or simply uncanny mutant powers, success didn’t come from their willfulness alone. Ultimately, they possessed intelligence and skill. Blustering may get you through the door, but ability is what builds great computers, great products and great companies.
— Alex Tuttle, Vault.com
Is $100 million the new threshold for signaling you’re serious about making a difference? Recently, it was Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg pledging that amount to the Newark school district. Now we learn that consulting giant Accenture will be spending 100 (very) big ones over the next three years on its Skills to Succeed program.
The goal of Accenture’s program seems pretty straightforward: the company wants to equip 250,000 people around the world with the “skills that enable them to participate in and contribute to the economy and society.” And to do it by 2015
A few examples of the type of work the Skills to Succeed program does—and will continue to do in order to meet its targets:
- Building the skills of young entrepreneurs in Africa
- Offering free skills training for the unemployed in Brazil
- Training disadvantage young people in business process outsourcing and technology skills in India
- Helping underprivileged students in the Philippines and Cambodia to develop IT skills
- Training migrant groups in specialized technology skills in Spain
- Helping disadvantaged young people to become entrepreneurs in the U.K.
- Teaching business preparedness skills to students in community colleges and providing IT training for disadvantaged youth in the U.S.
In each of the endeavors, the company is working with partner organizations—some local and some international.
Now all we need are some jobs for that quarter-million people to fill!
A nice chart from the New York Times’ Economix blog provides an interesting insight into why you (or someone you know) can’t find work just now: business owners are concerned about poor sales. According to Economix’ Catherine Rampell, the chart “breaks down what percent of small businesses cited each of these problems as their biggest challenge, going back to 1986.”
You’ll notice, of course, that less than a third of business owners cite poor sales as their chief concern. But when you compare levels of concern over the period of the recession (say, from 2007 to now) to the entire rest of the chart, it’s clear that we’re seeing all-time levels of concern over sales of late. And unless you’ve been paying particularly poor attention over the last couple of years, you’ll likely also have noticed that unemployment is at record levels as well. Both, in fact, are between two and three times the levels seen in the decade prior to the recession. Coincidence?
Source: The New York Times Economix blog
A couple of other interesting stats: first, despite the fact that taxes are one of the hottest political potatoes around at the moment, the proportion of business owners citing them as the main factor affecting hiring hasn’t varied that much in the almost-quarter century the chart covers.
There’s also been a marked surge in concern over government requirements—likely a response to health care reform and new regulation prompted by the recession. While that’s obviously a cause for concern—particularly for the government as it approaches the November elections—it also spells opportunity for one group of workers: consultants.
Also, check out the dark blue section of the chart, which tracks responses on “quality of labor” as a concern for hiring. While it’s interesting to see how much the concern has narrowed since the onset of the recession, the real story is in comparing the mid to late 90s to the years prior to the current recession (when skilled labor shortages were widely predicted). Significantly more respondents in the 90s were concerned about quality of labor than those in the middle of the previous decade—despite the fact that the latter group were actually facing the prospect of losing quality from the workforce with the (now-delayed) impending retirement of the Boomer generation. So what gives? Was it the Internet boom catching companies cold or something else?
–Phil Stott, Vault.com
Does your company have an HR handbook? Chances are, you’re thinking yes, of course. What about a culture book for employees? Zappos does.
The company, which started by selling shoes a decade ago, is today an Amazon subsidiary and has expanded to a multitude of merchandising. It is also probably one of very few companies to grow its brand around an idea of transparency, ethics and collaborative culture. For Tony Hsieh, cofounder and current CEO of Zappos, this was intentional from Day 1. In his recently released book Delivering Happiness: A Path to Profits, Passion, and Purpose—which I will be reviewing in the coming days on Vault’s CSR Blog: In Good Company—Hsieh devotes a whole chapter to the Zappos Culture Book.
In short, the book contains employee interpretations of what their company’s culture is all about and how it is different to other companies. And this is no mere PR exercise, designed to make the company look good: all of the entries received were inserted with minimal editing, even when they were anonymously submitted. Of course, Hsieh took a risk; no company is perfect and since culture is perceptional, the initiative could have resulted in a mudslinging session directed at Zappos management.
But it didn’t. While the majority of the entries were positive, not every employee was thrilled with the company’s culture—and that was reflected in the book. Hsieh, as promised, inserted both the criticism and the positive feedback when creating Zappos’ first Culture Book. His aim: To show existing and new employees what working there is all about, including the good, the bad and the ugly. In fact, much to his delight, the book has been downloaded by people who don’t even work at Zappos.
The company produces a new Culture Book every year. For Hsieh it epitomizes the evolution of the company’s brand over its short existence. “We wanted to be as transparent as possible, so we decided that none of the entries would be censored or edited, except for typos. Every edition of our culture book includes both the good and the bad so that people reading the book can get a real sense of what our culture is like. With each edition, it would also be a way of documenting how our culture was evolving over time.”
The idea of a culture book isn’t unique; it is Zappos’ treatment of transparency and accountability as a priority that makes this worth noting. Most companies conduct some form of employee survey to gauge problem points and get feedback on what’s working. However, publishing it without censorship in a publicly available document is what makes Hsieh’s approach sustainable. Even if it isn’t popular in every C-suite.
As a manager, how open are you to engaging your team in positive criticism? With new generations stepping into the workforce every year, ideas are bound to constantly evolve, but are management styles redefining and realigning accordingly? Whether you call it corporate responsibility, sustainability, or something else entirely, it doesn’t need highly designed websites and ad campaigns to work. It can start small: like spearheading a collaborative and transparent workplace culture. But it has to start from the top.
Hsieh puts it succinctly, “Even today, our belief is that our Brand, our Culture, and our Pipeline are the only competitive advantages that we will have in the long run. Everything else can and will eventually be copied.”
“The company must be set up so it can run without me.”—Sir Richard Branson, quoted in a recent interview with HR Magazine.
Richard Branson has achieved so much in his career that he barely requires any introduction. Over the past few decades, he’s been an ever-present in the business landscape, founding new ventures, increasing his fortune and operating with something akin to the touch of Midas throughout.
But even billionaire entrepreneurs have their limitations, and Branson—who turns 60 this month—has clearly begun thinking about what the world will look like without him. As the HR Magazine piece points out “[f]ew companies have so publicly revolved around one man; Virgin is Branson and Branson is Virgin.” With that in mind, it stands to reason that any leader—even one who’s just taken the reins—could learn something about succession planning from a man whose entire career has involved being at the center of everything.
In any leadership position, the question of ego comes up from time to time—if not all the time. Often, decisions are made less for the good of the company and more because the person in charge wants to look good or be seen to be exercising their authority. Under such leaders, businesses can easily turn into personality cults—something that makes succession planning all the more difficult. If someone can’t envision a present that doesn’t involve them pulling all the strings, how likely is it that they’ll be able to think about the company beyond the end of their tenure? And yet that’s exactly what they’re expected to do.
It’s clear from the article that Branson sees the challenge of planning for the future as a question of people management: it’s about getting the right people into the right positions and empowering them to make decisions that are consistent with the company’s existing culture.
How you do that, of course, is another matter. For Branson, it’s about getting out of the way and trying not to let his reputation stifle the people he hires: “For as much as you need a strong personality to build a business from scratch, you must also understand the art of delegation. I have to be willing to step back now.”
That’s a lesson that doesn’t only apply to succession planning. Sometimes the most important thing a leader can do is to resist the urge to handle everything and let other people do the things they’re good at—for the good of the company now and in the future.
–Posted by Phil Stott, Vault.com
The road to Hell is paved with good intentions, and there are few better examples than the Yugo. One of the biggest business blunders of the past quarter century, it was an ambitious project felled by carelessness. In the new book The Yugo: The Rise and Fall of the Worst Car in History, author Jason Vuic unravels the convolution of obstacles and errors that led to the car’s cultural infamy. However, the tale of the world’s biggest lemon also illustrates how professional mistakes occur, and serves as a lesson to avoid similar disasters in your endeavors.
Imported from Yugoslavia in the 1980s, the Yugo should have been a golden opportunity. The 1970s gas crises spurred demand for smaller, efficient and affordable cars; meanwhile, America had taken a shine to Yugoslavia—with its eagerness for trade alliances (thus rebuking Soviet Union embargos), the country was a scruffy puppy that American industry could adopt and coddle with Coca-Cola, blue jeans and Bon Jovi music. Thus the Yugo offered US consumers the cheapest car around, made by an Eastern Bloc nation’s adorably industrious people. But despite its low price, owners came to rue its fragility and poor performance. It became an instant joke, and thereafter regarded as the worst car ever.
So what can you learn from the Yugo?
1. Don’t just ask “what”—ask “why.”
The Yugo was meant to fill a demand. America’s “Big Three” automakers weren’t offering fuel efficient cars, and Toyota and Honda were themselves moving into deluxe models. The door was open for cheap, no-frills transportation, and Yugo did exactly that—all too well. By delivering the most low-end car imaginable, Yugo created an undesirable and inadequate brick. This is the first mistake: When identifying a demand, we often only ask, “What need isn’t being fulfilled,” without following up by asking, “Why isn’t that need being fulfilled?” Had Yugo America considered why no one was offering cut-rate cars at miniscule prices, they might have understood the limitations of their product, and addressed them before moving forward.
2. Have the tools and the talent
The Yugo wasn’t just the product of shoddy design and entrepreneurial myopia. It was the product of an outdated East European factory whose conditions earned observations that “OSHA would have a field day” with it (today, harmful and shoddy facilities can mean big trouble—just ask BP and Apple). Meanwhile, the manufacturer lacked adequate resources; the car’s engine was an obsolete model, and used an antiquated carburetor that failed emissions tests. Also consider that Yugoslavia’s car industry was almost nonexistent, resulting in a slim talent pool lacking any manufacturing.
When that’s your source for product, don’t expect to be marketing the next iPad. To successfully deliver in any endeavor, every aspect of your operation and resources should be the best they can be. If any element doesn’t meet the standards you expect of the end result, you’re setting yourself up for disappointment.
3. Have a leader you can believe in
The single greatest element of the Yugo’s folly was perhaps the man in charge, Malcolm Bricklin. Previously known for introducing America to the Subaru 360—a car perhaps worse than the Yugo, with the informal slogan “Cheap and ugly does it!”—and his reputation for fraudulent business tactics, Bricklin was a would-be John DeLorean with twice the flamboyance and a crummier eponymous car (the forgotten 1974 Bricklin). In the annals of inept entrepreneurs, Mal Bricklin is the ultimate cautionary tale: Know who is steering your ship. Learn his or her background and intended direction. Those with a history of error or half-formed plans are unlikely to forge a path to success. (And if you are the leader… well, lots of luck!)
4. And if all still goes wrong …
Take heart. The best laid plans can still come up short, but not every failure is the ultimate nadir. Even the Yugo gets a bum rap as the “worst car ever”—the aforementioned Subaru 360 was outright dangerous, with a Consumer Reports rating of “Not Applicable” to 1968 quality standards. The same goes for Germany’s three-wheeled Messerschmitt, which used a lawnmower-esque pull cord to start. Don’t forget Chevrolet’s Corvair, which inspired Ralph Nader’s Unsafe at Any Speed. Or, heck, even the Pinto.