What some true badasses taught me about leadership

This book is truly hardcore and yet surprisingly helpful from a leadership perspective.  We imagine Navy SEALS pulling off Mission Impossible style activities.  Who would have thought that Navy SEALS would have to deal with PowerPoint slides and face similar frustrations manaextreme-ownership-coverging up and down that the rest of us do in a business environment? I immediately recognized challenges with my own leadership style and used the perspectives in the book to change my attitude to great effect.

The key concept is in the title and aligns closely with the Stoic writings of Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations – stop blaming others for what happens, look in the mirror, accept the blame and take ownership.  This is the only way to build true trust that is the most effective way to make teams work together.  Google comprehensively studied what makes teams effective and discovered that psychological safety was the single most important metric for determining how well a team would work together.

When you hear lines like “corporate doesn’t understand what’s happening in the field”, “management doesn’t get it”, you know trust is not present.  Jocko and Leif make the argument that the best way to fix this is to ask “Do they want us to fail? Are they trying to sabotage our efforts?” Of course not.  If they don’t get it then you’ve failed to explain it to them.  So own the communication, invite them out to the field, learn why they are asking the questions they are, build the relationship and the trust.

Navy SEALS are true badasses.  The audiobook is fantastic because Jocko and Leif read with their intense deep gravelly voices recounting stories from Iraq with a deeply measured intensity that transports you to the urban battlefield. It can get a little repetitive with the stories, details and acronyms (I got tired of hearing M1 Abrams tank and M2 Bradley fighting vehicle spelt out every time they were featured) but at the same time there’s an important lesson from this precision and attention on details, the cost of a mistake can be the death of a close team mate, so checking and double checking when the stakes are high is absolutely critical, even if it get’s annoying.  There are two examples in the book of avoiding blue on blue incidents (aka shooting your own guys) that were averted by having the courage in the heat of battle to stop and confirm the details before acting.

If you remember nothing else, remember there are no bad teams, only bad leaders.  They tell a great story of 6 boat crews competing in SEAL training.  Boat 2 is crushing it, all working together.  Boat 6 is losing every race.  The leader is blaming his crew and thinking he had the bad luck of getting a weak crew.  They swap the leaders and suddenly Boat 6 starts coming in first or second with Boat 2.  The successful leader did not assume he would lose, and focused the team on pushing to the next immediate obstacle in the race.  This small shift in approach coupled with belief in the team (which made everyone on the team believe in themselves) made all the difference to their performance.  So have faith in your teams, look in the mirror and ask are you truly owning the outcome no matter the result.

If someone on your team is causing you frustration, seek first to understand the behavior and the motivation.  Ask them, hey I noticed you seem to be having trouble with doing x, are you not sure where to start or why we’re doing it, or something else? By realizing that you are responsible for their success you’re now on the same team and working together to be successful.  If you both understand and believe in the mission (the why) and your own personal whys, the motivation will be there and you can focus on the execution.

The Icarus Deception: Seth Godin wants you to fly closer to the sun

icarusdeceptionIf you haven’t made your New Years resolutions yet (as Seth would say “NOW is the time to start”), maybe you should give yourself a prod by picking up a copy of The Icarus Deception and seeing if the prodigious Seth Godin can exhort you to go make some art.

Since writing Linchpin in 2010 (my review), Seth has been on a campaign to get us out of our comfort zones and creating the art that is within each and everyone of us, but we are just to scared to let it free.

Seth is on top of a major movement here – according to the Census Bureau about 3/4 of US firms have no payroll (21.4 million vs 5.9 million with a payroll).  If you add in small businesses with less than 10 employees (77% of 3.6 million of the 5.9 million) the segment is even bigger.  At 21.4 million the self-employed sector is nearly 2x the employment size of  largest industry segment (education at about 12 million).  The change appears to be accelerating too (as a proxy, those working from home grew 41% in the last decade to 13.5 million)

It’s a spin on the old follow your passion line – it’s better to love and lose than to never have loved at all. He argues passionately and persuasively that the people wrongly assume they are taking the low risk path in a “safe” corporate career that they don’t care about.

That’s the clever and unexpected component of the title of this book – the part no one ever talks about is that Daedalus told his son not to fly to low either – because being too close to sea there would be no lift.

There’s a lot of repetition, but there are also some handy ideas and lists and a few (albeit brief) case studies.  Seth works hard to make sure you get what art is and requires:  being vulnerable and honest, relentless persistency (grit), putting your best work out there, realizing those who value your art will find it, and learning to live with the inevitable trolls who won’t value what you do.

Like most of Seth’s books it’s a quick and easy read.  If you’re still procrastinating, this might get you moving.

The one critical flaw that turned my Nike+ SportWatch GPS into a non-functional piece of jewelry

I was so excited to get the Nike+ SportWatch GPS a couple of years ago for Christmas. It was stripped down to key functionality (distance and pace, time, backlight, upload results to cloud), offered some nice options (add a foot pod and a HR strap) and looks cool (one of the few watches I’ve ever owned to receive multiple compliments)

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All show, no go!

The watch has worked well, with one critical and debilitating flaw that has turned it into a piece of jewelry. In technical gear Nike has exhibited the “all show, no go” syndrome (for example, the Nike Running cloud software looks fantastic but has limited useful functionality when it comes to reporting) and this watch has ultimately suffered from this.

Critical Lesson: Design for partial failure conditions (aka, always provide a workaround)

The watch relies on what appeared to be a very clever USB connection hidden in the strap buckle (see photos).

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Now you see it

Now you don't

Now you don’t

This is the only way to recharge the device, and to upload runs, clear memory, update watch firmware and settings via the Nike Connect software on PC and Mac.

Unfortunately the wires between the USB plug and the watch itself are not robust and partially failed (of course about 3 months after the one year warranty) and despite numerous calls to the nice folks at Nike Support and multiple attempts the watch is no longer recognized as connected by the Nike Connect software. It can still be recharged however.

Doesn’t sound too bad right? Can still use it to record runs and manually record the distance and time, right? Well yes, until the memory fills up and one discovers there is no way to delete what is in memory, either through a simple erase capability on the watch (best) a device reset (ok), or running down the power (painful, but doable), and the watch will not record new runs once the memory is full.

Final injustice? Watch is not repairable or serviceable in any way.

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Where the band meets the watch is where the connection failure occurred

So I’m left with a chunky piece of jewelry that tells the time. Another failed piece of running technology (more reviews on more devices to come)

My plea to product designers: think about failure conditions and how your device will work (or not) once those occur and always provide a workaround! Even if that means just making it repairable.

Ever owned a piece of technology with the same flaw? I’d love to hear your stories.

TSA Pre – The best gift of the holiday season

tsa_preIf you’re a frequent traveller, airport security is a constant pain if for no other reason than the uncertain duration.   Even with premier access lines for frequent fliers, at airports like SFO, EWR and ORD the premier access lines can take 15+ minutes.  For most of last year, I used to head up to the premier line at International to avoid the monster premier access security lines at United Domestic (and the United Club is better there too).

Life before TSA Pre

Along comes TSA Pre.  Suddenly the barcode on your boarding pass grants access to a lane with no one in it.  You leave everything on except bulky winter jackets (no need to take off shoes, belts and sweaters),  laptop and liquids stay in the bag, and no full-body scanner.  It’s just so civilized.   And so quick.

Life after TSA Pre

Flying out of SFO on New Year’s Day my morning looked grim with another monster queue, when all of a sudden I spy the TSA Pre lane, my hopes are raised, and the lady scans my boarding pass and waves me through.  And I’m through in barely a minute, without having to go through the whole uncomfortable undress and unpack business.  Leaving Chicago on Thursday, same fabulous experience. It really does feel like Christmas.  I guess I’ll be annoyed at any airports that don’t have it now…

Very easy to sign up.  Just Google TSA Pre + [Name of your airline] to find the sign up page.  For United, all I had to do was tick a box saying I wanted in and press submit.

Go on, give yourself the gift that will keep on giving.

Safe travels, all!

Success = Luck + 10,000 Hours

Blatantly obvious when you put it like that. No doubt there are some examples of success with only one, but one of Gladwell’s objectives is finding how to help more people be successful with more certainty.

Luck is hard to generate, but understanding how culture affects aptitude is not (in other words you don’t get to choose where you were born or how you were brought up, but you can understand the unique strengths that set of circumstances will bring).

In Outliers, Gladwell does a brilliant job of breaking down the American obsession with the myth of the self-made man. I can’t decide if I’m thrilled or not with this conclusion.

On the glass half-empty side, if you’ve got to be in the right place at the right time and it takes 10,000 hours of hard work to be successful, why bother? Accept your fate.

On the other hand, from the optimist’s viewpoint, what could you excel at given your background and what you love doing. This is an extremely insightful way to review your life. It’s remarkable how seemingly small events can add up to powerful determinants of future success. For  Bill Gates, Gladwell recounts how it was being at a school which had one of the first  computers in the world that allowed online processing enabling him to rack up 10,000 hours while still in his teens.  For the Beatles, their extensive live stage time in Germany is also cited as a key driver of success.  The biggest determinant of which kids makes it to the elite in classical music?  Practice time.  If you’ve got kids, now is a good time to think about whether you’re helping them to really practice the things they love.

BTW, the book is very entertaining, because Gladwell is such a great storyteller. I recently had the misfortune of picking up The Town the Food Saved which could have been full of wonderful stories about country characters and how they turned a dead mining town into a thriving local food community. Instead it was an extremely dull history where you got all you needed to know from the jacket – artisanal, local food is good for the planet, profits, and the local community. At least reading something like this makes you realize how good authors like Gladwell are.

If you look back at your life, you’ll discover unique twists and turns that have set you up for success in a number of areas. Why do some people lose that trail, while others keep the passion alive? Is it parental intervention, the influence of peers, just wanting to fit in, or chasing a pot of gold? Discovering what helps people stay on track would be a great companion to this book.  For me, retrospection revealed product and process design, reviewing, cooking, and trail running as opportunities.  What would it help you to see in your own life?

Finding the time to Crush It!

photo courtesy of IanL

If you haven’t had the pleasure of listening to the audio version of Gray Vaynerchuk’s Crush It!, do yourself a favor.  As Gary admits, during one of his many ad libs, he dictated the book to a ghost writer anyway, so this is actually the format it was meant to be heard in.  Scrap that, you need the video-cast, to get the full “gary vee” experience (like his awesome Wine Library TV video blog).

For those not familiar, Gary is another of the social media celebrities, who helped grow his family’s wine business from $4M to $60M in 5 years, who has a ridiculous number of followers on twitter and fans on facebook. He brought passion and a raw approachability to demystifying the enjoyment of wine, which the industry sorely needed.

If you need to get pumped up about whatever it is you are passionate about doing, the audio version of this book  could get just about anybody excited.  The passion and excitement in his voice is palpable and infectious. And for most of us, finding time to listen in the car or working out is a lot easier than finding time to read.

Now this takes us to the crux of the problem – finding the time.

Unlike Ferriss’ 4 Hour Work Week, Gary is not suggesting creating a “muse” that will earn big dollars for you with minimum time investment, so you can life the life of your dreams now.  He’s actually suggesting a LOT of hard work.  Your priorities are family, health and then your passion.  Kiss the wife and kids good night and get to work 9pm-2am.  Every night. Repeat.  Don’t worry about the stats, if you’re the best in your narrowly-defined field (finding a niche small enough that you can be best in the world at it is key), and passionate about it, the rabid fans will come and stay, and, over time, you’ll be able to monetize your passion, and give up your day job.  We’re not talking crazy wealth here, just $50-100K which is good enough for a decent life, and at least your spending your waking hours doing something you give a damn about.

The book has a decent amount of tactical advice on how to do all of this, from getting a URL to setting up a blog site, to creating great content.  Where all the work comes is in engaging with the audience.  This is of course where most of us fall down.  We get obsessed with the content and forget about building the community.  They won’t appear all by themselves, you have to make them want to come, again and again.  If you want to understand the degree of this dedication, he still answers every tweet or email, despite the staggering volume he receives..  I tried this and its true.  Less than 24 hours after tweeting props about the audiobook, he @ replied back with a thank you.  Amazing.

After hearing the book, I was naturally pumped to try this out.  And that’s when it dawns on you.  You have got to want this more than anything else to make it happen.  You need the chutzpah and the hustle to self-promote.  Endlessly. I can handle a few late nights in a row, but then I run out of gas.  And I love spending time with my family.  And I have an awesome day job.  So now, I want to combine Seth’s Linchpin with Gary’s Crush It! and make this happen on my day job.  Because that’s near and present.  And that way it doesn’t have to be 9pm-2am every night.

My lizard brain wants me to stop…

But I must ship this before the publication date. Even if its not perfect.

A mother and daughter in the row in front of me start arguing over something like who paid for the DIRECTV. The argument escalates into a rehash of an apparently longstanding feud with lots of name-calling and cussing. They eventually settle back into an episode of “Keeping up with the Kalashnikovs” or whatever they call it – life imitating art I suppose. The girl next to me is whining incessantly on the phone about some injustice her father has apparently inflicted upon her. None of the flight crew is doing anything more than trying to survive this flight. I picture them all with lizard heads poking out from their shirts and retreat back to my advance copy of Linchpin, Seth Godin’s latest, desperately hoping for a little art or the opportunity of a gift in the day.

The Ritz-Carlton in Ft. Lauderdale comes to the rescue with an artful greeting (the magic is achieved with headsets relaying the guest’s name to the check-in desk) followed by the unnecessary but delightful step of helping me find my room, confirming that it is ok, and asking about the purpose of my stay. I hesitated at the conclusion (time for the tip), as Seth suggests that money cheapens the gift, but the protocol is pretty clear on tipping (unlikely many other aspects of American tipping which I continue to find baffling and embarrassing) and followed the easy path of convention. Seth suggests adding a why it was great through a “Thank you and …” construction – I guess I’ll need more practice on that one.

I love the central idea behind this book and the logic of the call-to-action. Your choice:

  • Take the apparently risky and courageous path of becoming an indispensable human, and in the meantime discover meaning and lifelong employment, or
  • Follow the indoctrination of many years of society and education and remain a faceless cog in the machine, increasingly dispensable, and at the mercy of your employer and the forces of globalization

If you accept the hypothesis that we all have this choice (and Seth argues that regardless of nature or nurture that we all have genius within us), or even that it’s better to die trying than not, it’s pretty obvious which is actually the less risky path.

Much like Dan Pink’s wonderful A Whole New Mind, which I reviewed previously, Godin passionately argues that times have changed, and a new approach is the key to success. The good news is the new approach should make you not only more successful but happier and wealthier at the same time. Bring it on!

In the last few weeks, I’ve reflected on my life and current work. There is no doubt that when I’ve put in that extra effort at work or home it’s typically yielded noticeably better outcomes, and been warmly acknowledged by the recipients, which has given back to me a sense of fulfillment far in excess of that extra effort. In the same few weeks, by actively pursuing ways to go above and beyond I’ve significantly elevated my value in what becomes a marvelous positive feedback loop – do something unexpected and great, be acknowledged, feel great, create and give more art. This concept is not new, but the imperative for action is arguably stronger than ever.

The table of contents is brilliantly presented as an executive summary with sentences describing the key ideas under each chapter title. Godin proposes that between management and workers (the cogs in the machine) there is room for a new class of indispensable workers – the linchpins. Like Ayn Rand’s heroes but more forgiving in the sense that linchpins work with the world as it is, rather than running off to form their own utopia. The book is peppered with Seth’s trademark pithy one-liners, clever observations, arguments and definitions (for example “Art is a personal gift that changes the recipient“), and fabulous quotes such as this one from artist Hugh MacLeod: “The web has made kicking ass easier to achieve, and mediocrity harder to sustain. Mediocrity now howls in protest.” Best of all are the hand-drawn charts. and Venn diagrams like the one at left from page 101.

If you’re inspired to try to become a linchpin (and most of the readers will be), there are a few tips and guidelines but importantly no map to enlightenment. Everyone’s destination and path will be different and ever-changing. The resistance to this life of art and gift giving will be driven by the lizard brain, the primitive bits called the amygdala that “apparently takes over whenever you are angry, afraid, aroused, hungry or in search of revenge”. One key tactic is to remember that artists ship. If you procrastinate and never publish your work, you can’t succeed. With that in mind, I better stop here and press the button.

Seth, thank you for this little gem of a book – you are a constant source of wisdom and inspiration.

Dear readers, good luck out there. May you all choose wisely.