Apr 28, 2010

On the Shortness of Life by Seneca

Philip Delves Broughton, a journalist turned MBA, wrote a book called “Ahead of the Curve.” In the book, he recounted his HBS experience with a very unique set of perspectives that I found compelling. In 2009, he wrote a book review in WSJ on the theme of management myths and bad impact that they can have in business. In that piece, Delves referred to Timothy Ferriss as an influential author of “The 4-Hour Work Week.” Ferriss, it turns out, “believes that most of what we need to know about work and life was written down centuries ago by Seneca” and that Seneca’s On the Shortness of Life was practically a required reading among the hip, technology crowd.” Well, that piqued my interest.
It turns out the book is not about efficiency at all (as I was led to believe by Delves’ association of “4-Hour Work Week”). Instead, Seneca writes of timelessness. In particular, his thesis is that people go about lives pursuing all manner of useless and perishable things. For example, if you scurry about making house visits and idling your hours at parties, what have you gained from it? Seneca’s concern there is that people live as if they are ‘destined to live forever … and not notice how much time has already passed by.’ As another illustration, Seneca writes of someone who spends one’s entire life toiling in order to gain a high public office of consulship that lasts but one year. What then?
Well, in Seneca’s mind, the best and wisest use of time is to expand one’s knowledge by spending time reading philosophy, to meditate in one’s mind with the likes of Plato. By doing that, one reaches into past and expands span of one’s life. It is preferable to idly passing time or toiling away ceaselessly.
As I was scurrying about from one Darden social event to another, and as I found myself feeling detached from the noise and din of the crowd at times, I could appreciate Seneca’s wisdom. Then again, I thought that it wasn’t all idle time, and that I was enjoying life with friends. Besides, my friend’s jokes are better than Plato’s.

On the Shortness of Life

Apr 16, 2010

Leadership lesson - Case of guest speaker organization

I was part of a 3-person committee for the a Darden student club that organized a speaker event for the entire school. I took on a lot of the leg work, but I had not volunteered to be the lead coordinator. Here were a few of the expected results and actual outcomes (there are not comprehensive).

Attendance goal - 60+; actual - app. 25
Audience diversity goal - diverse groups; actual - narrowly defined group of interested students and faculty

What happened? Few things. One was team leader's fault. But, for me, the more instructive lesson is my own complicity in that failure.

First, the team leader never really outlined all the tasks and timeline very clearly. Often, I would have to fill in and send out tasks to the group and get the thing moving. Questions I have:

- Why did the leader never step up? In that light, what was my responsibility?
- What should I have done? Should I have expended additional efforts to grow the leader to energize and encourage him? Or should I have simply taken over the show? I think in this case, he was my peer, so it was up to me to have said something. I failed to fix the issue.

Next, my complicity. Here are the things that most stick in my mind.

- I was asked to reach out to this speaker. I spoke to him and landed the invitation. But, during the conversation, I was not at all impressed with the guy. I should have said something, but when the team leader seemed satisfied with the speaker, I just held my peace. I think part of the failure of the event was because of this speaker's shortcomings. I ought to have stood up if I really cared and wanted to make this event better.
- As with the team leader's shortcomings, perhaps I ought to have been clearer in my expectations and should have engaged the speaker more directly to ensure the program went well by preparing ahead of the event.

These observations bring me to some troubling questions:
- If you want something done well, do you have to do it yourself? But, if you do, you're taking all the blame.
- In reality, you want your team to perform better - both your leaders and your followers - so that outcome will be better than if you organized on your own. But, energizing your peers who 'don't get it' can be draining. What's the solution? Is there some magic bullet for energizing your peers? How do you do this without losing your own energy?
- According to the GE model, you 1) hire right, 2) then differentiate talent & fire under-performers and grow top performers. Would I have fired someone in this case?
- What if I'm not in a position to fire anyone? So, does it always come back to me?
- Perhaps what was missing was incentive structure and accountability structure. How would one build this amongst a peer group?
- Part of what failed was lack of institutional knowledge. SYs didn't really involve themselves much and they didn't show up. Why? Were they merely testing us or were they genuinely indifferent?

Lessons: There are broader lessons to draw beyond those questions:
1. Don't ignore institutional knowledge. Figure out a away to leverage it and transfer it.
2. Inclusiveness and performance. You want to get others involved and make them perform? Figure out a way to (a) get their skin in the game and (b) make performances clear so that you can differentiate.
3. Judgment. This is a tough one. When your gut tells you something is going wrong. Stop, think, talk about it, and make sure you're going in the right direction.
4. Courage. Failure to choose comes from fear. When a tough choice needs to be made, choose and move forward.

Or perhaps I could have applied a different framework. For example:
1. Planning - create the right venue and select the right speaker; perform stakeholder analysis
2. Design - stay ahead of the marketing plan and get folks involved
3. Execute - lead team and coordinate tasks; delegate

Apr 8, 2010

IC Classes 7 & 8 - Professional Barriers: Luke's paradox

Last two days at IC have been challenging because I've been unable to focus on the topics we've discussed in class due to extra curricular activities and due to skepticism about value of the content we've handled.

It is weird. I think the idea about many of the leadership challenges is that there are lack of clear communications or proper energizing of the base. Based on some of my personal experiences, I wonder if it's actually because of the character of the individual. It seems those who are intelligent, humble, and have high character never cause intentional harm in an organization. Those who lag, on the other hand, not only stink at what they do, but they stink up the joint around them. Does this mean that you don't help the struggling swimmer, but that you let her drown? Maybe.

Here's a paradox. To those who have much, much will be required of them. To those who have little, even the little they have will be taken away.

Does that apply to the work place? Some organizations cut the bottom 10%. Should that number be higher if you want a really high performing organization? Darden itself is very selective, but I find it troubling that even at Darden, there are folks that I might like to cut from the organization. And I'm sure those others feel similarly about me. How can I reconcile this to working and performing in an organization?

How would having difficult conversations fix the performance problem? If it doesn't fix it, is it merely a tool to clarify the issue so that a manager can have an excuse for letting go of the poor performer?

Apr 6, 2010

Big companies hire extraordinary people to do ordinary things

Big companies hire extraordinary people to do ordinary things. Entrepreneurs hire ordinary people to do extraordinary things.

This was the punch line Mike O'Donnell began his open floor Q&A addressing all manner of topics pertaining to entrepreneurship.

Actually, there's quite a bit of truth to what he is saying. Having worked in a large organization, it makes perfect sense. And actually makes me quite worried regarding my summer employer, which is a very large bank. The positive will be that there should be more opportunities for me to experiment, fail, and receive coaching in such a large and matrix organization. Yes, I think that's how I will look at it. As an ocean of opportunity.


Here's what I got from entrepreneurship and leadership from hearing Mike:

1) On financing - Money is never the limitation. There is always a surplus of money chasing good ideas.
2) On opportunity - Entrepreneur is someone who sees opportunities everywhere. Problem is he’s not passionate about everything.
3) On salesmanship - He sells the future. He loves to sell the unknown.
4) On finding advisors - Nobody you hire should want a job, those you hire should want wealth.
5) On hiring – Don’t hire, contract out over test period and fire if they don’t perform.
6) On leadership – Without a galvanizing event (deadline) people won’t get anything done; it’s the way we are built.
7) On creativity – Companies have to be able to dismiss earlier ideas. This is creative destruction. (Incidentally, according to Marissa Mayer of Google, CEO Schmidt believes good ideas that someone spent time creating must have some kernel of useful truth in it, and therefore should not be dismissed.)
8) On product – Many entrepreneurs think of application or product. Don’t . Think instead of platform.
9) On question to ask – Does it scale? Test is, does it make money when you sleep.
10) On optimism – Be wildly optimistic. Investors love optimism.
11) On process – a. does it scale? b. prototype, c. referenceable account, d. galvanizing event, e. contract instead of hiring (bootstrapping).

Apr 1, 2010

IC Class 5 - Impediments to Network Development

"How (Un)ethical Are You?" by Banaji, Bazerman, and Chugh

"The article explores four related sources of unintentional unethical decision making: implicit forms of prejudice, bias that favors one's own group, conflict of interest, and a tendency to overclaim credit." Problem is, as the article points out, we are not consciously aware of these problems. A solution starts with the recognition that our conscious attitudes could be serious screwed up.

Interesting link to see how biased you might be.

So, what's a manager to do? 1) Collect data, 2) shape the environment, and 3) broaden decision making. For example, shaping the environment is the notion that having a diverse set of people working in the office will lead to erosion in ethnic bias, and hence better decision.

For me, though, the thing that was really interesting was the comment by the authors that "These flawed judgments are ethically problematic and undermine manager's fundamental work - to recruit and retain superior talent, boost the performance of individuals and teams, and collaborate effectively with partners."

First, the idea that bad decisions can be unethical is interesting. Second, this observation reinforces a concept we learned in LO's GE case, that manager's chief job is to identify and grow talent. Perhaps I should spend more time at Darden learning to size people up.