Leadership

Building Confidence

My last post talked about the confidence the Seahawks portrayed throughout their Championship season.  In it, I pointed out founders need to embody a confidence about themselves if they want others to follow.

But how do you do embody confidence?

And how do you build it stronger, especially when you are just starting out?

Find, understand and polish your vision

The first step in developing your confidence is to figure out who you really are and why you are doing what you do.  This comes in the form of identifying your vision – the reason for your businesses existence – and putting it in terms others can relate to.  One must ask themselves questions like “why does the world need my idea?” “what is the problem I am solving?”  “what is it that if I gave it to people, and then took it away, they would break down my door and demand back?”  These questions will help define your vision for a better world.

This is especially hard to for technical people since they think more in technical/functional terms, which most laymen don’t understand.  Most people can’t grasp “we are creating a device smaller than a desktop PC, specific to telephony, but can also access hypertext protocol and other applications for utility.”

But, people easily understand “connect with people across the world  from the palm of your hand.”

Get comfortable at rejection

The only way to get a yes is to get through a no first.  Think of the most confident people in your own life, and know they have been rejected more times than most.  A prerequisite to a strong confidence is the ability to take a no, to be rejected and be shot down by others around them.

How do you do that?

Put yourself out there, take investor meetings and allow them to critique your concept and vision.  Ask the smartest people you know to join your startup.  When these people say no, ask why?  Using these inputs, you will learn how to adjust on the fly and what you should change in your approach.

Rejection challenges one’s constitution.  It makes them look in the mirror, take account and look deeper as to why they are doing what they do.

It’s important because like exercise, these negative experiences put the individual into a position to either learn from it and get even stronger in their confidence, or face the reality they need to leave their vision  altogether and go a different direction.  Which road will be taken?  Either way, they are progressing toward a position of more confidence.

Bring more people along with you

Armed with a vision and the strength built up from taking no’s along the way, it’s now time to find others to join you in your pursuit.  Nothing builds more confidence as much as the feeling of people jumping onboard and joining you in your vision.  It’s the social proof principle, meaning the more people that join you, the more other people will want to join you.

The first few hires are always the most challenging, since people will ask themselves “why isn’t anyone else on the team?”  But once you have a team behind you (even a small team) you will feel invincible.  The confidence that comes with teammates standing behind you and convincing others to join their cause is indescribable.  Soon enough you will find yourself actually having to turn away people because they don’t quite fit the profile of who you are looking for.

It all starts with confidence.

Confidence begins when a person knows who they are and where they are going.  They determine that by identifying something in the world they want to change.  Once they can explain it clearly, others will understand and will want to join.  At that point, they will feel unstoppable.

I told You So

RG3I hate to say it but I will.

I told you so.

You may remember almost a year ago I wrote about The Washington Redskins and the failure of their team leadership when dealing with Robert Griffin III and his knee injuries.  During that post, I detailed their game against the Seattle Seahawks in which the Redskins – wanting to win and advance in the NFL playoffs – kept playing their highly talented rookie quarterback even though his was visibly hurt, risking his future at the same time.  One specific part of the article I will share again:

RG3 went down, and the future of the franchise lay on the ground to the disappointment of the silent stadium full of Redskins fans. Although the injury is not career threatening at this point, it’s arguable if RG3 will actually be able to play at the level he was before the injury.

So whose fault is it?

Not RG3′s. The problem is the person involved is not thinking clearly or wisely at the moment. They are focused on themselves, considering only the moment and the short term, not the long term. They do not understand the long-term ramifications of their actions. Even though RG3 said he could still play the responsibility to make the right decision ultimately falls on the coach, the leader of the team. He should be realistic enough to make the right decision.

Well, I told you so.

This year, The Washington Redskins – once favorites to win their division and challenge for the Super Bowl – are 3-10.  They will not even be making the playoffs and their coach is under intense scrutiny. Their quarterback RG3 has looked awful this year and it seems he still isn’t fully health, hasn’t regained his speed and quickness from before the ACL injury.

CBS reports Coach Shanahan is contemplating shutting RG3 down for the rest of the year so he can get healthy and concentrate on next year.

Though Griffin hasn’t been nearly as good in his second season as he was when he was a rookie, Shanahan said this isn’t an instance where he’s benching his quarterback because of performance issues. Instead, he’d do it to keep Griffin healthy going into the offseason.

Hmm, maybe something he should thought of last year before he chose to risk his future investment.

The point here is to not make fun of a struggling team (ha, the Seahawks are league leading 11-2) nor pick on an injured player.  It’s to review a huge leadership lesson from a year ago and look at it from the framework of what has transpired.

As I predicted last year, keeping Griffin in the game risked not only that season but they ended up losing the next one (that being this season).  It was a risk and they took it.

The thing is, as a leader our decisions have major consequences.  Sometimes the most drastic affect the immediate, such as the choice of throwing the ball to the wrong team as to cause an interception.  But sometimes – and often most times – our decisions have consequences we cannot see or aren’t even aware of yet.  They are long term consequences.

That last statement is the hardest part of Leadership.  Being a Leader is all about taking risks – albeit calculated and well thought out risks.  During a time of decision, you must be able to inuit enough about the future to understand the long term consequences of the choices right in front of you.  And unfortunately, maximizing for the immediate usually comes with a huge price tag in the future.

In this case, it might even be a shortened career of one of the most gifted quarterbacks to come out of college.

It’s tough to watch a highly talented athlete struggle like how RG3 is currently.  But it’s even harder to be in the leadership role and faced with difficult decisions.  Next time you find yourself in a challenging conundrum ask yourself what would you think about each choice a year from now.  Almost always, the one you will think higher of a year down the road is the choice you need to make today.

Better take time to think about the future now rather than mentally replaying the past and wishing you made a different decision.

The Value of Youth Sports In Startup Founder Success

A few recent conversations have turned towards youth sports participation and the valuable life lessons they provide.  One in particular stood out to me – youth sports participation is one of the best training grounds for a startup founder.

How would I know?  I was a competitive athlete pretty much since the time I could run, competed up until college and still remain athletic and competitive today.

soccer1Although I didn’t necessarily know it at the time, as I was playing youth soccer, basketball and baseball I was adequately preparing myself for a life long battle in the business world.  Learning to cope with immense challenge and competition is paramount to a person’s ability to achieve success.

I am so grateful for the experience and for my parents not forcing me into any specific activity, but rather allowing me to participate in a number of sports so that I could further develop my athletic ability, maximize my leadership skills and mature enough to determine which sport I more fully wanted to pursue.

It turned out it was Soccer, and it’s crazy to think back and imagine me as an 8 year old running around in a grassy field on an early Saturday morning thinking I’m just having fun when in actuality I was taking in and absorbing lessons which would help me in my life 20, 30 and 40 years down the line.

Below are just a few ways youth sports help develop a young energetic child into a strong willed startup founder.  I thank John Cook of GeekWire for the conversation that sparked these thoughts.

Teamwork

One of the first things you learn as a young athlete is how to play as a team and how to become the best teammate possible.  No soccer team can win with one person trying to play alone – teams must be able to depend on their offensive players, their defensive players and ultimately their goalie to perform to their best ability.  Players must be willing to step up and take the shot, yet at the same time be able to support and assist their other teammates if the organization is going to function properly.  This requires youth to understand which is which, and the appropriate timing of each decision.

Companies are the same way, they aren’t built by one person. Startup teams must be well rounded, supportive and willing to do whatever it takes to achieve success – for all members of the team.  That, or the team won’t exist.

Leadership

Even at the earliest of ages sports teams will vote on a player to become captain, basically naming the leader of the team.  I believe this is the single best thing we (should continue to) do for our youth.  Captains are usually the more talented of players, have wide ranging experience and are outgoing and not shy in their ways with others.  But most importantly they are willing to take on responsibility.  They must lead the team, delegate when appropriate and stand up for a teammate if something goes wrong.

I believe giving responsibility as early as possible is one of the best ways to develop great leaders.

Imagine the lessons a 10 year old is learning as they lead their team during youth competition.  He/she is learning the basic tenants of team leadership, things they can apply to almost any endeavor.  In short, they are the on-field CEO and the success or failure of the team will rest (at least somewhat) on their young shoulders.

I cover startup leadership quite a bit so if you are a regular reader you will know my basic thoughts on the subject.  Simply put, startup CEO’s need to take full responsibility for their organization from day one.  They must wear the captain’s band on their sleeve in plain view so everyone knows where the buck stops.  This is not for their ego; it’s for efficient and effective organizational structure.  Why should an employee ask 3 people a question when really they should go directly to the decision maker to get the best and quickest response?  If employees in a startup don’t know who the decision maker actually is, whatever startup they are a part of ain’t gonna be around very long.

Failing

I get it, losing is not why we play the game.   Go visit a sports park on a weekend and watch how kids react to losing nowadays.  Yet losing in sports – just as in life – happens.  It actually happens a lot.  Learning to fail gracefully is a huge lesson any person, especially for someone thinking about starting their own company.

Why am I telling you failing is good for children?  Failing, maybe even getting injured  in the process, and then getting back up and trying again shows young athletes that if you do not quit then each new day is a new opportunity to win.  Losing teaches children not everything in life is guaranteed.  In fact, it teaches us more often than not things will not go as originally planned.  Sometimes shit hits the fan and you need to retreat and regroup to determine your next move.  There’s your basic “strategic thinking” lesson in action, a skill founders must employ A LOT.  Losing teaches youth hard work is required to experience success against your competitors.

This is essentially the experience of any early stage founder.  Startups fail most of the time.  Using lessons from our youth we can realize we just need to get back up and try it again, and hopefully we learn something in the process.

Enduring Hard Work

Finally, part of learning from failing is gaining the endurance to last long enough so we can experience success.  I distinctly remember our training sessions during soccer season.  They sucked.  Even if we weren’t going to be the best in the state of Washington (which we were 3 out of 4 years) we were definitely going to be the most in shape.  Coach made it very clear we would be the team with the best endurance around.

So we ran.  A lot.  We ran until we dropped, and then we ran some more.  We learned to embrace hard work and earn our success.  We learned anything worth winning was worth enduring tough challenges and the hardest of practices.  It was our standard and we embraced it wholeheartedly.  We spoke it.  We lived it.  We practiced it and we played it.  No wonder we won the state championship 3 out of 4 years I was on the team.  It was in our our DNA and our blood.

Startup founders need to take ownership of their future.  They simply need to determine where they are going, commit to a standard and uphold it no matter the cost.  They need to bleed confidence to the point where their success is inevitable.  They need to work harder than their competition.  This doesn’t mean work the most hours as humanly possible, that would be as dumb as our soccer coach running us until we all pulled hamstrings, eliminating us from competition completely.  Startups must figure out how to work harder but also work smarter.   Determining and following quality performance standards will do wonders to founders and their startup teams.

Youth sports are fun but they are also incredibly valuable to our society.  If you are a parent I would encourage you to place your children in a positive environment where they can develop leadership and success skills as early as possible.

Just like you.

The Best Example Of Leadership I Have Ever Heard Comes From Bill Campbell

This is one of the best examples of leadership I have ever heard, given from Bill Campbell.  He was/is an executive coach to individuals such as Steve Jobs, the Google Founders (and many more) as well as Chairman of the board at Intuit.

A man asks a question late in the interview around how leaders should traverse the unstable landscape between political issues within their company.  Bill’s answer is spot on.

“As a CEO, your job is to break ties within the company, and if you cannot see where the ties are within your organization – then you shouldn’t be there.  You need to get to the bottom of it ASAP.”

Watch the clip at the 56:00 mark and if you have time watch the entire hour long interview.

How To Lead A Volunteer Army Into Uncharted Territory

You may have heard the description of founding a company is like leading a volunteer army.  I couldn’t agree more and want to dive deeper into the analogy to see if we can pull out some nuggets.

It’s true, most startups are formed by individuals who are passionate about their idea.  But, the fact is passion does not actually get the work done and they cannot do it all on their own.  They will need to attract other talented individuals who fill gaps in their skills to join the cause if they want to see it succeed.

Interestingly, this is where leadership comes into play.   Leadership is simply defined as influence – nothing more, nothing less.  A true leader has influence over others in their decisions and actions, resulting in the followers taking action based on the input and example from the leader.

Said another way, the founder’s ability to influence others to join him in his pursuits will solely determine if those people will actually join, and in the end will determine the outcome of the startup.  Early in the startup phase it’s quite likely  there is no capital available to pay each person’s salary.  Thus, people will need to volunteer their time and efforts for the cause and making it even more challenging for a founder to attract the right people.

So how (and more importantly why) will others volunteer for a desolate and untested startup, one that might even be in its idea phase?  What does it take to attract, influence and retain the talent required to succeed in your startup?

George Washington statue

Looking back into the history of the United States we can study great leaders and learn how they were able to lead a volunteer army.  George Washington is the epitome of the leader – strong, confident and influential.  He was the perfect leader for our country at a time where the talent he needed to attract were pretty much all volunteers.  Here’s a bit on Washington from Wikipedia:

Although Washington never gained the commission in the British army he yearned for, in these years the young man gained valuable military, political, and leadership skills. He closely observed British military tactics, gaining a keen insight into their strengths and weaknesses that proved invaluable during the Revolution. He demonstrated his toughness and courage in the most difficult situations, including disasters and retreats. He developed a command presence—given his size, strength, stamina, and bravery in battle, he appeared to soldiers to be a natural leader and they followed him without question.

Washington learned to organize, train, drill, and discipline his companies and regiments. From his observations, readings and conversations with professional officers, he learned the basics of battlefield tactics, as well as a good understanding of problems of organization and logistics.  He gained an understanding of overall strategy, especially in locating strategic geographical points.

As you can see, George Washington was exactly what the American colonies were looking for in someone to lead them to freedom.  He was strong in stature and in character.  He was knowledgeable in the tactics required for success in warfare.  He studied relentlessly – on his own men, on the competition, on the geography, and on organizational principles.  He didn’t let politics get in the way of his purpose, which was to win the war and emancipate the new country towards their new found freedom.

Washington was a true leader.  Drilling down a bit further, you can see Washington basically had three roles during the war:

First, he was the predominant leader and man in charge of the American forces.  In 1775–77, and again in 1781 he led his men against the main British forces. Although he lost many of his battles, he never surrendered his army during the war, and he continued to fight the British relentlessly until the war’s end.  He plotted the overall strategy of the war, in cooperation with Congress.

Second, he was charged with organizing and training the army. He recruited regulars and assigned Baron and General Friedrich von Steuben, a veteran of the Prussian general staff, to train them.  Eventually, he found capable officers, like General Nathanael Greene and his chief-of-staff Alexander Hamilton. The American officers never equaled their opponents in tactics and maneuver, and consequently they lost most of the pitched battles. The great successes resulted from innovative strategy , at Boston (1776), Saratoga (1777) and Yorktown (1781), came from trapping the British far from base with much larger numbers of troops.

Third, and most important, Washington was the embodiment of armed resistance to the Crown—the representative man of the Revolution. His enormous stature and political skills kept Congress, the army, the French, the militias, and the states all pointed toward a common goal. By voluntarily stepping down and disbanding his army when the war was won, he permanently established the principle of civilian supremacy in military affairs. And yet his constant reiteration of the point that well-disciplined professional soldiers counted for twice as much as erratic amateurs helped overcome the ideological distrust of a standing army.

Sounds like a CEO and leader to me.  Although there are many others, here are 3 principles to keep in mind as you lead your volunteer army.

Unprecedented

The idea must be moving, unprecedented and important to the individuals involved.  No one wants to sacrifice for something we already see everyday.  People want to be part of something big, amazing and unique.  Many years down the road people simply want to be able to say to their friends “yeah, I was there at the beginning and we started it”

The main reason George Washington was able to attract volunteers to join the cause was because they were fighting for their own freedom and literally making history at the same time.

Dedication

A leader must be as dedicated – perhaps the most dedicated – to the cause if they are going to be an effective leader.  Followers will always be more influenced when leaders lead by example.  People don’t care much about what you say but will look more intently on what you do.  Dedication means working harder than others.  Dedication means fighting all the way to the end.  It means not leaving your co-founders the instant you sense things will be harder than you initially thought.  Simply put, a leader will attract and retain talent when the talent doesn’t even question the leader’s dedication.

Washington lead by example and publicly displayed his dedication to the cause of independence.  It is clear no one under him questioned or doubted his dedication, and in the end, by not giving up on the war Washington and the colonies were able to squeak out an unthinkable victory and changing history forever.

Empathy

Empathy is the ability to understand and  feel how others are feeling.  It’s the ability to “walk a mile in their shoes” and “see from their perspective.”  Being an empathic leader helps you understand what others in your organization are thinking, feeling and doing.

Why is this important?  Well, people hate to be told what to do when the person who is barking orders has no idea what is actually going on in the individuals life.  It shows lack of perspective and lack of reality.  Instead, if the person giving the orders actually understood the reality of the other person, they can then amend their orders with more realistic expectations.  The leader will know what is possible and what isn’t.  They will be able to adjust the deliverables, understand appropriate timeframes, delegate important responsibilities, and find others to do the job in the end if that is what’s needed.

A clueless leader is an ineffective leader.

George Washington knew exactly what his troops were going through because he was right there with them.  He spoke to them and often dined with them.  He traveled with them and camped with them.   He “walked many the miles in their shoes” so in the end he empathetically understood their reality and intuitively knew what they were capable of.

Leadership is truly an art, not a science.  It takes courage, strength and dedication.  It also takes someone willing to walk the extra mile with their followers so they fully understand who they are dealing with.

Like NFL Coaches, CEO’s Must Make Tough Decisions. Period.

I recently had a conversation with a fellow CEO dealing with a personnel issue on his team.  The issue at hand is not as important as the fact that the CEO had been putting off the decision for some time.  He seemed to be second-guessing himself and not trusting his gut.  He felt the specific individual in question, who had been with the young company for about a year, was “just not a good fit” and the CEO was having some challenges with the individual, saying things like  “there’s always some issue with him every time we meet…”

My feedback oriented around the fact that being CEO meant being a leader.  And in being leaders we have to be strong enough to make tough decisions, to do what is in the best interest for the long-term health of the company first, and only secondly what is best for any one individual on the team.

This is not an easy thing to do.

A CEO must protect their organization, especially from itself.  It is up to the CEO – and all executive management as the organization grows larger – to place and remove individuals as they see fit.  Most importantly a leader must be able to determine if an individual is adding more value to the organization than it is taking away.  If not, that person must be removed or placed in a more appropriate role immediately.  This includes the CEO himself when he is skirting from his responsibilities.

In this specific instance, the CEO felt the individual in question was a net negative on the team and was a growing concern, even starting to split the team during meetings, discussions, etc…  He was obviously very concerned.

Most decisions a CEO will face won’t feel good or be easy to make.  It gets even more difficult when we involve highly talented individuals.  Sometimes it might seem counterintuitive to actually remove a highly talented individual from a team, yet if the value they bring to the table is being overshadowed by the value they are taking away (or could potentially take away) with their detrimental behavior, something must be done.  That or the entire team will fall as a result.

It’s the leader’s responsibility to make these decisions before its too late.  This is why I argue it is never too early for a startup to have a CEO/Leader in place.

I dovetailed the conversation a bit to illustrate my point.  Just last week the Seattle Seahawks (I live in Seattle and I’m finally proud to be a fan again) played the Washington Redskins in the NFC wild card playoff game.

RG3If you were watching the game you know exactly what happened. And a crystal clear lesson in leadership played out in front of the entire country on national television.   I sure hope others took note.

Robert Griffin III (or RG3 as many know him) won the Heisman trophy last year with Baylor and was drafted 2nd overall by the Washington Redskins and is believed to be their franchise quarterback for many years to come.  They signed him to a 4-year, $21 million salary with the entire deal guaranteed, meaning he gets ALL $21 million no matter if he plays or not.  Obviously, this is a huge investment for the Redskins.  You would think they would have treated him as such during his first season with the club.

RG3 strained a ligament in his knee on Dec 9th and sat out a few games but came back early to play the last game of the season and the playoff game against the Seahawks.   During the playoff game, it was quite obvious RG3 was not 100% and his leg was definitely in pain.  He was “playing hurt, not injured” as they say.

What happened next was all things fascinating (from a leadership perspective), lucky (for us Seahawks fans) and excruciating (as I feel bad for Griffin) to watch.

Early in the game Sunday RG3 tweaked his right hurt knee again, to the point of limping, wincing and running with an impaired gait.  It was obvious he was injured and should not have continued playing.  Even the announcers were wondering when the Redskins will pull him out for the betterment of his health.  Numerous times, the television cameras showed RG with assistance from trainers and medical personnel, walking into a “small room” for who knows what, but my guess is examination and possibly a cortisone shot (pain reliever) so he could drag himself back onto the playing field to continue playing.

And that he did.  According to sources, it was his decision and he absolutely wanted to play the rest of the game even though he was a shell of his previous self.

OF COURSE THE YOUNG STAR WANTED TO PLAY. Anyone high performance individual is going to want to continue, especially when we are down or struggling.  We all want to prove we can overcome obstacles and be champions in the face of adversity.

So what happened next?

As the game continued, the Seahawks eventually took the lead. It was then, as the Redskins were doing all they could to win, RG3 awkwardly bent down to grab a bad snap only to fatally injure his knee; looking as to have seriously torn some ligaments in the process.  Injuring a previously weakened knee on a play where no one touches you, referred to as non-contact, is an obvious sign you shouldn’t have been playing.

RG3 went down, and the future of the franchise lay on the ground to the disappointment of the silent stadium full of Redskins fans.  Although the injury is not career threatening at this point, it’s arguable if RG3 will actually be able to play at the level he was before the injury.

So whose fault is it?

Not RG3′s.  The problem is the person involved is not thinking clearly or wisely at the moment.  They are focused on themselves, considering only the moment and the short term, not the long term.  They do not understand the long-term ramifications of their actions.  Even though RG3 said he could still play the responsibility to make the right decision ultimately falls on the coach, the leader of the team.  He should be realistic enough to make the right decision.

In the case of RG3, his head coach and somewhat the CEO of the organization, Mike Shanahan, is the person who should have been thinking about the long-term consequences of what was transpiring in front of him.  But for some reason he wasn’t thinking clearly either, perhaps wanting to roll the dice and gamble to win the game. His prize procession, the guy they gave up so much to draft and the one they touted as the future of the organization – their $21 million investment – placed himself directly in front of a Mack truck and no one did anything to stop him.

What’s the point of having leaders if they are not looking out for their team?

It’s easy to understand why Shanahan chose to leave RG3 in the game, he’s a good player when healthy.  It was reported he repeatedly told his coach he could play.  He said “I’m hurt, not injured”.  RG3, being a rookie, could be passed for naïve and maybe didn’t fully understand his actions had such drastic consequences.

But Shanahan, a veteran coach and the leader of the organization, should have known this and put his fist down.  It is his responsibility to make the tough decisions and do what is right for the entire team.  The truth is his lack of judgment in the heat of competition has not only cost the Washington Redskins a playoff win, it jeopardized the future of the organization since the resulting knee injury will lead to months of recovery time and RG3′s promising future now looks a bit more unclear.

Like it or not, the fault always goes to the leader.

To win one playoff game (short term) Shanahan could possibly have just given up the entire next season (long term) with his gamble.  But more importantly, Shanahan’s lack of leadership has now altered the life of one of the most promising young athletes to enter the NFL in a long time.  There is a strong possibility RG3 will never be able to perform at the level he was previously, in the end maybe even costing him millions of dollars and lost opportunities.

All because he did not have the courage to grab Robert Griffin III by the shoulder pads and say, “Robert, you are finished for the season.  I want to protect you for the long term so rest the knee and start preparing for next year and going back to the playoffs.”

Leaders must have the courage to do what is right not only for the organization but each individual within it, even if it’s the most difficult thing they have ever done.

I asked my fellow CEO if he thought Coach Shanahan would like to have that game back and possibly make a different decision?  We both agreed and believe he would.

As for his situation, I told him he needs to let the individual go, as soon as possible if he wants the rest of his team to stay intact.  I told him the responsibility of his organization rests on his shoulders and he should strongly consider what happens if he doesn’t make this tough decision.  “Everyone else on the team is watching how you handle this situation”, I told him.  I also suggested he owes it to the individual to be upfront and honest so they know what is happening as well as to free them up to go pursue their goals as soon as possible.

CEO’s must protect their organizations, the people within them as well as themselves by making tough decisions.   Problems are solved by tackling them head on, not by running away from them.

It’s Amazing How Much Technology Negatively Affects Our Leaders

As a lifelong student of Leadership, I’m sure I look at certain people and situations a bit differently than my peers.  When observing those at the helm of large or small tech companies, others might think genius or insanely wealthy where I tend to look for greatness or Leader.  All too often, and to my disappointment, I end up with something like “hmmm leader… not so much”.

The current state of Leadership in the tech sector has recently come to my attention as mini-crises seem to occur daily.  Wall Street this, tech companies that…  the rising turnover at executive levels of various companies.  These all definitely point to something not quite right at the top and everyone’s pointing fingers and playing the blame game.

And as it is with everything, it all comes down to leadership.

Look no further than Groupon and Zynga for real life examples. They are perfect studies of what happens when there is a clear lack of leadership.  Both companies are in free-fall with no end in sight, and both are now seeing early investors, shareholders (even founders) cashing out before it craters to rock bottom.

Coincidence?  I don’t think so.  Surely I don’t blame a founder for wanting to secure their future after years of hard work, but based on recent actions the lack of faith is clear as day.

Why all the focus on Leadership?  Well, I recently stumbled across one of the most incredible articles on the subject, Solitude and Leadership, originally a lecture given by William Deresiewicz to a class at the United States Military Academy at West Point in October 2009.   I can only imagine what it must have been like in the room that day, reading it now still yields a strong sense of how important leadership means to our military.

But as I read the article something unsettling occurred to me: are we, as an industry, giving Leadership its due respect?  Are we adequately preparing individuals to lead organizations, some numbering in the tens of thousands?  Or are we inadvertently focusing on the wrong skills and placing the wrong people at the front?  These individuals may be highly intelligent, top of their class, technically oriented and gifted with the ability to communicate with machines, but do they embody basic abilities to connect, communicate and lead others on a human level.

Accomplishment doesn’t necessarily mean people are adequate to lead.  Highly qualified people can have a CS degree from a top school, be a grifted engineer, and had the foresight to be a co-founder of a startup or previously earned millions from a well placed bet.  All those things make for a successful individual, but they have nothing to do with understanding the principles of leadership.  High tech and human interaction are pretty much opposite sides of a broad spectrum.

To put it bluntly, are we appointing the wrong people only to see the ship go sideways?

To viscerally grasp quality Leadership, one has to have a deep understanding of human motivation, psychology and sociology.  Basically, a leader must inherently know what makes people tick, and why.   The dynamics of human nature is one of the most challenging arenas to master, its more art than science.  There’s no formula or equation to use when approaching another person in the heat of the moment.  It takes awareness of the situation, yourself and the other person – all at the same time – to best handle a tense or high pressure situation.  Some people naturally posses such talents and can handle things with ease and grace.

And some don’t.

I believe this is where well intentioned but misplaced individuals fail promising companies.

The entire article gripped me, full of lessons and anecdotes on how we need to review the basics of human nature and leadership.  But a few things jumped out at me I want to share with our community in hopes it can help get our leaders back on solid ground.

Solitude is true leadership

It’s quite interesting how Deresiewicz refers to solitude as true leadership. How can time alone bring clarity to thoughts and ideas, leading to better leadership?  To find out, a simple glance around will give some perspective.  If you look around you will notice most people tend to be excellent sheep.  They flock around, listening to and following others, and are ultimately way too distracted “climbing the greasy pole of whatever opportunity they are after at the moment” to actually think clearly.

In short, rarely does anyone actually take the time alone to think for themselves.

“I find for myself that my first thought is never my best thought. My first thought is always someone else’s; it’s always what I’ve already heard about the subject, always the conventional wisdom. It’s only by concentrating, sticking to the question, being patient, letting all the parts of my mind come into play, that I arrive at an original idea. By giving my brain a chance to make associations, draw connections, take me by surprise. And often even that idea doesn’t turn out to be very good. I need time to think about it, too, to make mistakes and recognize them, to make false starts and correct them, to outlast my impulses, to defeat my desire to declare the job done and move on to the next thing.”

Leaders would do themselves (and their followers) justice by simply taking more time alone to think independently.  Only by letting all parts of the mind come into play will they arrive at an original thought.

Deresiewicz believes we have a crisis of Leadership in this country.  “What we don’t have is Thinkers.  People who actually think for themselves – independently, creatively, flexibly, strategically.”

And he is absolutely right.  What we need is better thinkers, independent thinkers.  True leaders are able to take the time to think things through for themselves, and then have courage to make decisions even when those decisions are not popular but in fact the right thing to do.  Courage to think and act independently – for the right reasons – is what Leadership is all about.

Learn to think for yourself

To think clearly and independently a Leader must remove themselves from distraction and influence.  And when I say distractions, I mean all of them.   Today, more than ever, leaders are so bombarded with interruptions via email, texts, social networks, employees, bosses, media, etc… it’s no wonder they can’t gain any clarity of thought.  And studies have proven people do not multitask effectively – at all.   In fact, multitasker’s pretty much suck at everything they are doing when they are engaging in numerous activities at once. Various studies have shown multitasking only further distracts the individual and can actually impair ones ability to think clearly.

This is why I believe Twitter and Facebook, fascinating as they may be in our world today, are killing our ability to actually think clearly and independently, taking with them our uniqueness and innovation as collateral damage.  We’re now all dopamine feigns, searching for the next high pumped directly into our veins via short tidbits and chunks of useless information.  It’s like we are all now thinking in short tweets…  And according to Deresiewicz, this is not good:

“Here’s the other problem with Facebook and Twitter and even The New York Times. When you expose yourself to those things, especially in the constant way that people do now—older people as well as younger people—you are continuously bombarding yourself with a stream of other people’s thoughts. You are marinating yourself in the conventional wisdom. In other people’s reality: for others, not for yourself. You are creating a cacophony in which it is impossible to hear your own voice, whether it’s yourself you’re thinking about or anything else. That’s what Emerson meant when he said that “he who should inspire and lead his race must be defended from travelling with the souls of other men, from living, breathing, reading, and writing in the daily, time-worn yoke of their opinions.” Notice that he uses the word lead. Leadership means finding a new direction, not simply putting yourself at the front of the herd that’s heading toward the cliff.” (Emphasis mine)

A.  Constant.  Stream.  Of.  Other.  Peoples.  Thoughts…  No wonder we are having problems thinking for ourselves.

When was the last time you found yourself in the solitude of concentration?  How about being lost for hours because you were so damn focused on working through a challenging task you forgot about time?  It’s probably been a while due to all the chiming and dinging of gadgets stealing from you any time alone or peace of mind.

Maybe unplugging for a certain amount of time each day or week is exactly what you need to progress your life.  It’s amazing to realize that without solitude—the solitude of Adams and Jefferson and Hamilton and Madison and Thomas Paine—there would be no America.

Quality Leadership and technology are inversely correlated

As a society I fear we have become too distracted by the “efficiencies“ of technology we have lost sight of how to actually lead effectively.  The problem is the more we use technology the less we actually communicate with people.

Great leadership requires mastering humans, not machines.  It requires face-to-face communication (not Instant Messaging or emailing) so the leader can gauge a person’s non-verbal cues and adjust their delivery accordingly.  Leaders must be able to read an individual simply by looking into their eyes, studying their facial and body movements to decipher what that twitch or brow raise might mean.

To become a better leader, simply use technology less and spend more time with your people.  But beware, it takes an all-encompassing person, someone who is emotionally stable and can handle being outside their comfort zone as they address challenging issues with someone possibly less stable.  During a though conversation, you must be able to hear them out and handle their objections in a way that, in the end, results in saving the face of the company and everyone involved.

One of the best ways to determine if you are cut out to lead is to ask yourself “do I actually like talking to people?”  It’s a simple question but the answer tells a lot.  Indeed, intelligence is required to be a leader, but it’s people’s emotional intelligence that makes them great leaders.  Daniel Goleman, in his industry-leading work on emotional intelligence and leadership, writes:

” My research, along with other recent studies, clearly shows that emotional intelligence is the sine qua non of leadership. Without it, a person can have the best training in the world, an incisive, analytical mind, and an endless supply of smart ideas, but he still won’t make a great leader.

To be sure, intellect was a driver of outstanding performance. Cognitive skills such as big-picture thinking and long-term vision were particularly important. But when I calculated the ratio of technical skills, IQ, and emotional intelligence as ingredients of excellent performance, emotional intelligence proved to be twice as important as the others for jobs at all levels.”

It’s obvious by now the above description of a leader naturally fits certain people and naturally dismisses others.  My suggestion is two-fold.  First, as leaders we do a better job of identifying naturally gifted individuals and place them in their appropriate positions – be it a leadership position or not.  And second, we realize the slippery slope of technology on which we are currently standing, how it affects our interactions with others and understand if our leaders fall they will surely take us down with them.

Disclaimer:  It took me a number of attempts to finish this article, as I had to check my email, send a few tweets and see what my friends were up to on Facebook.  I know… I’m working on it too!

It’s Not If (But When) Your Startup Slides Sideways You’ll Find Your True Potential

Boy has it been a challenging couple of months.  The title of the post might be a bit misleading, suggesting my company is indeed going nowhere fast.  This is a wrong assumption.  It’s definitely going somewhere, we are growing 50% month over month and just posted record numbers again, but just as a car can slip and slide when it hits a patch of black ice so can a young startup.

It’s not if (but when) the sliding occurs the true leader will emerge.  Let me just tell you what happens in a typical startup.

A. People sit around and think about cool new ideas

B. Those people start prototyping and building a product

C. Once they realize they want to jump into this more intently, they find a few more people and form a team

D. At some point the group formally incorporates and makes the company official

E.  The people associated are listed as founders and as such, receive incentive to stick around via stock

F.  (Most founders) think they are the next Facebook and think their product will magically spread virally to millions of people

G. Then it doesn’t

H.  Then shit hits the fan and everyone finds out it’s actually tough to grow a business

I.  Only then will you finally find out what people are made of.

J.  Only then, when it’s actually work and things don’t come as easy, the pretenders will leave

K.  And only at this time the leader will emerge and help the company find it’s true path

Look, life is tough.  Things don’t always work out as planned.  But does that mean you just up and quit, to simply move on to the next thing that you think might magically make your dreams come true?

I don’t believe so.  I believe it takes Blood, Sweat, and Tears for anything materially positive and truly great to be created.  This has always been true but it’s even more so today.  Why?  Because it’s too damn easy to build a product and start a company today.   There has to be a distinction between the minor leagues and the major leagues; jumping straight to the majors just doesn’t happen often enough to be a believable story for your life.

What’s the minor leagues?  Hacking, dinking around and building crazy products.

What’s the major leagues?  Building a business and an organization around the product which adds value to our world.

If you ever wonder who’s the leader in a group, just light a bomb (figuratively) and throw it directly into the center of the team. Watch someone run and they are the weak link.  They are not the leader.  Whoever stays has leadership qualities within them.  And whoever stands up, starts taking hold of the situation and determines the path forward – well they are the true leader.

It’s funny, when everything is great and everyone’s slapping backs and high-fiving there’s almost no need for leaders.  Everything seems to move forward with little direction or effort.  But just wait till something happens.  Leaders find their calling and establish their potential when things start going sideways.

I think it’s amazing that leaders emerge during crisis.  I also think it’s fitting and believe it’s how the world should work.

But please do yourselves and your co-founders a favor next time you want to start a company.  Look each other in the eye and ask yourselves what kind of player you are?  Minor or major?  Weak link or leader type?  It will save quite a bit of time and grief on the others.

@jnickhughes

Steve Ballmer’s Lack of Real Leadership

 This post was originally published on BusinessInsider.com.

Around 1975, Microsoft Corporation and Apple Inc. were created, kicking off what would become one of the most fascinating times in modern history.   During this period both have been significant players in the PC revolution, although recently as businesses they appear heading in opposite directions.

One is accelerating to new heights and one is stalling out like it forgot to refuel at the last gas station.  I think something abnormal is going on here and believe it’s more than the general “great products” vs “not so great products” argument.   Below is a view of the stock price of each company dating back to 1986.  Here is Microsoft:

(images courtesy of Yahoo Finance).

And below is a view of Apple, again viewed with a long lens dating back to 1986.  On thing to note is the scale on the right.

The last decade has seen Apple explode in value, culminating in them becoming the largest technology company in the world.  During the same time frame, Microsoft was dethroned by Apple and has pretty much remained stagnant.  Indeed, there is something peculiar going on here and anyone looking to build a consumer brand should listen closely.  The difference between Apple’s success and Microsoft’s lackluster performance can be summed up in one word – Leadership.  It takes more than smart employees, good technology and market dominance to deliver great financial results.   It also takes a Great Leader.

JobsSteve Jobs understands Leadership, Vision, Inspiration and Branding are vital to business success.  He gets it.  He understands how to position his Brand in the soul of a human being, amazingly interweaving his devices into peoples identity.  This is accomplished by casting a vision and allowing a tribe of followers to form around it.  He also understands: it is first about the vision and only then the resulting products can come in to reinforce the vision with the consumer.  Users of Apple products gladly follow when they realize the vision and resulting products make them feel better.

Jobs’ vision is one where the terms “Think Different”, “Beautiful Creation” and “It just Works” are used in description.  And although difficult to put into words as a consumer, you just feel it – viscerally.  It’s almost magical.   Jobs inspires with every word – not in a flakey, shallow and inauthentic manner – but a genuine manner.  I understand no one is perfect, but he definitely gets how to move people.

Steve Ballmer is flat out not an inspirational leader nor a visionary.

BallmerWith more than ten years at the helm of one of the largest companies in the world, Steve Ballmer has obviously done many things right.  One thing he cannot do is accurately describe the deeper purpose of Microsoft or any of their products.  When he tries, it doesn’t get anywhere close to touching the human soul.  He lacks the innate leadership quality of Inspiration.  He can run and jump, scream and yell, and do Monkey dances on stage all day long but this is not leadership.  Nor is it inspiration.  (Can you even imagine Steve Jobs doing this?)

Unfortunately for Ballmer, Microsoft is stuck between so many business markets it’s almost impossible to tie them together coherently to form a strong brand identity.  Without a unique purpose and vision, there is no brand identity.  The latest Microsoft slogan urges me to “Be What’s Next.”  I am not sure what that means… consumers need to be able to viscerally understand the brand and why they should be using it.  Like it or not, this responsibility rests on the leaders shoulders.  Ballmer has failed to communicate these fundamental aspects of Microsoft on a level that connects with everyday consumers.  He just doesn’t get it.

Is it any coincidence the maxim of Microsoft’s value as a company (January 2000) is pretty much the exact date Ballmer stepped into the CEO role?  And incidentally enough, the first real growth in Apple’s market cap appears not long after Steve Jobs arrives for his second coming as CEO in 1996.  The Leadership difference between these two men has made all the difference in respect to their company’s results.

Looking back at Microsoft’s stock price you can notice a time of incredible growth, back in the 90′s.  Who was the leader at this time in their history?  Iconic founder Bill Gates, an inspiring visionary in his own right was in charge at that time.  He inspired the world with the vision of “a computer on every desktop” during the emergence of the PC and Enterprise Revolutions (and thus the software running on them became a hot market).  Indeed Gates vision expanded the perspectives of all employees and rallied them to become the largest technology company in the world for many years.  But things have changed and today consumer devices are the rage.  What’s the overarching, game changing, ever growing Microsoft vision now?  I don’t see this type of world changing leadership and inspiration radiating out of Redmond any more (and I live 15 miles away).  Suffice it to say Apple saw this New World Order coming and Microsoft didn’t.

People follow leaders who embody a sense of purpose that inspires those around them.  Notice how consumers wait in lines for hours just to have a chance to own an “i-whatever”, the newest product that will touch their soul.  People give standing ovations and watch streaming online video during Steve Jobs inspiring  keynotes speeches.  All these happen for Apple because of Steve Jobs and his Leadership.  They create a mystic aurora which parlays towards the next round of  product announcements.

All this became very apparent to me recently as I observed the response to both companies announcements – Apple’s at their WWDC conference and Microsoft’s at the E3 conference.  The world huddled around their screens in anticipation of an announcement regarding Apple’s next mobile operating system, the iOS5.  In fact, there were no less than 37 individual posts covering Apple on SAI alone, Monday June 6th, the day of the announcement and.  Also 17 posts covering anything that is Apple appeared on Techcrunch.  Alternately, Microsoft’s announcements were an afterthought, an oh-by-the-way-this-happened byline with 3 posts that same day.  Succinctly put, no one really cared.

This unfortunate reality for Microsoft is directly tied back to Ballmer’s lack of Leadership, Vision and Inspiration.  People would have cared about Microsoft’s announcements had the products touched their souls with a deeper purpose.  Right now, go to Apple.com and Microsoft.com and see what I am talking about.  I am like most, finding it impossible to put a finger on exactly what it is that makes Apple… Apple.  All I can say is Steve Jobs knows something Steve Ballmer doesn’t.

Don’t get me wrong, we are talking about a great company in Microsoft, one that still does more than $60 billion in yearly revenue and employs some of the smartest and most talented people in the world.  They hold dominant positions in numerous markets.  But it pains me to write these words and acknowledge the reality of Microsoft’s future.  I am a Seattle resident and appreciate the value Microsoft has added not only to the world but specifically to Seattle.  We owe much of our regional economy to Microsoft.  They have done great things and the enterprise software ecosystem they created is quite amazing.

Yet, I see a company waning at a time when they really need to figure out their guiding purpose.  When I look at Apple, I feel secure they know where they are going.  When I glance across Lake Washington to figure out what Microsoft is doing, I am at a loss for words.  And this is scary for me.  I can only imagine what it’s like for the employees and the executives.

Lessons for us younger founders and entrepreneurs:

  • Find a deeper purpose to associate with your products and business
  • Cast your vision with simple, strong and relatable words
  • Become (or find) a leader who can connect with people and continually inspire them toward action

I don’t know who it will be but Microsoft is in desperate need of a Leader, an inspirational visionary who can turn this boat around – NOW.

Disclaimer: I have no personal connection with either Steve Jobs or Steve Ballmer and this is in no way personal towards either one of them.   My opinions are purely anecdotal and from observations as both an entrepreneur and consumer.