Following a legend is hard — at apple or anywhere else

December 18, 2008 at 2:25 pm | Posted in Business | 1 Comment
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There’s a lot of talk lately about Steve Jobs. Here’s a representative post of many that I have seen lately. However Apple handles this, I think it’s nearly a no-win situation for the next person who is going to take over.

This is a huge problem in sports. Following a legendary coach is tough for several reasons:

1) If you succeed, it wasn’t really you… it was you just riding the coat tails of the guy before you.

2) If you don’t advance the organization, it’s all because of you and the guy before you would have certainly done better than what you produced.

3) Your comparisons to the legend will only get worse because his image will grow in lore over time.

4) In some cases, the legend hangs around in the shadows just enough to never quite let you step out of his shadow.

So what is Apple to do? It will be interesting to watch, but my bet is that they will go through a lull of sorts when Jobs decides to step down. For me, following a legend is a tough situation with very little upside. I’d rather step into a disaster and build it up or start afresh somewhere. But that is a personality thing. Someone will definitely be ready and willing to take over for Jobs. Will be interesting to watch when it happens.

if it sounds too good to be true — dig!

December 16, 2008 at 10:14 am | Posted in Business | Leave a comment

The enormity of the Madoff scandal and the simplicity of how a Ponzi scheme works just amazes me.  Of course, everyone is asking “How!?”  However, before the “how” question, lies a more fundamental one: “why?”

The reason we’ve all been taught the adage: “if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is” is because the democracy of history shows that greed and pride pave the way to countless schemes of deceit.  Something certainly can’t just be done for the sake of being “good” can it?  Actually, yes, I believe it can.  BUT — and that’s a big but — we are right to question it when we see it and dig a little deeper to find the motivation behind it.  There’s ALWAYS a motivating factor, whether altruistic or nefarious — it’s there.  Our job is to find out what it is before we allow ourselves to dive in.

Now lets flip that around.  What if YOU are the one doing the altruistic act?  Such was the case recently when my company launched a site called SQLServerPedia.  When we rolled the concept out to our contributors last year, they loved it — and then they were skeptical.  When we rolled it out to our customer advisory board, they loved it — and then they were skeptical.  You could see the reaction over and over “This is great…  hmmm…. too great, in fact.  Wait a minute… what’s the catch?  What’s in it for you?”  In each case, after detailed explanation of our motivations, you could see they “got it” and were comfortable and excited again.

Those were good lessons for us about the value of transparency, which led to this page on the site that proactively explains exactly why we built it, what’s in it for us (or said less cynically, what motivated us), and why believe it is a good and beneficial thing for everyone.  It was a great reminder that even when your motives are altruistic, the world around you rarely knows or believes that.  ESPECIALLY these days.  Take the time to show folks why you’re doing what you’re doing.  Of course, one could still be lying.  But I think the more open you are, the better chance you have at dialog, the more they get to know you, the better the opportunity to build a relationship.  More work?  Yes.  More benefit?  Off the charts.

The “star” syndrome

December 12, 2008 at 1:27 pm | Posted in Business | 2 Comments
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Twice in my coaching career I had to deal with the “star syndrome”. The player that is so good that you find yourself looking the other way when it comes to his negatives, even if sometimes it means a bit of a double standard. That is a hard one for me, as it is for most coaches. There comes a point when you’ve got to make a call on these kids for the good of the team. The decision is agonizing.

I saw this recently not with sports, but with MySQL creator, Monty Widenius, when he publicly went on a rant about a recent decision to release a product. This was not his first action of this sort. Fact is, we find these people in all walks of life, both personally and professionally. They are extremely talented, passionate, brilliant, and often mean well, but their negatives can greatly bring down the infrastructure of a team or organization, especially depending on the maturity of the organization.

Jack Welch in his book Straight from the Gut talks about a quadrant approach he used to help clarify his thinking on this issue. (disclaimer: I listened to the audio book, but from what I heard, it looks pretty close to this:)


In his years of experience, he talked about how even though the decision can be extremely painful in the short-term because of their results, he has rarely seen it end well when someone just doesn’t fit the corporate culture. The erosion happens in slow, subtle ways that are very difficult to recover from in the end.

I believe the tolerance for the “star syndrome” is directly related to the size and maturity of the organization. Complete speculation here, but I’m guessing Monty’s passion and style were a fantastic, if not utterly necessary, fit in the early days of MySQL. But over time, their mission changed and I’m talking even well before the Sun acquisition. They needed to make money, pure and simple, and that objective was somewhat at odds with their early mission statement and goals. Things changed as they grew but it appears Monty didn’t want to change.

Should Monty go? I don’t know. That’s up to him and his team. But I do know this: organizations are in constant change. Sometimes it’s evolution, sometimes it’s regression, but if you’re trying to build a true team, then cultural cohesion is paramount every step of the way. The problem is often that those who benefit from the star’s brilliance don’t ever see the wake of problems that others must deal with. Monty’s developers may love him passionately because of his talent, but can you imagine the trail of carnage left by this particular action and how it affects so many facets of the company? And this was just one we saw. I know of many others they’ve dealt with internally. That makes for a culture that absolutely undermines the building of a strong, long-term team.

A good idea for one … not many?

December 11, 2008 at 5:58 pm | Posted in Business | 2 Comments

I opened one of my trade mags today. Took it out of the plastic and then… well, then I couldn’t turn the pages. I hate when I can’t turn the pages. The reason I can’t turn the pages is because of inserts, outserts, wrappers, posters and that funky glue that holds papers together. I mean, that’s a real pet peeve of mine. So, I start de-cluttering it and ended up with the pile you see below

decluttered magazine

Somewhere in that pile of papers is my magazine, which turned out to be quite small once I pulled all the stuff out of it so that I could flip through the pages.  Now let me add a disclaimer — my company is responsible for contributing to the problem!  But, it seems like such a good idea at the time.  You have this vision of thousands of readers getting their new magazine and seeing your oh-so-special “appendage”, taking it out, oohing, and ahhing over it.  Scenes of Ralphie enter my mind when he dreams of turning in his essay. (If you haven’t seen a Christmas Story, you might not want to read my blog anymore! 😉

Maybe I’m in the minority.  Maybe other people do react positively to these things.  But for me, I have to say, they are beyond frustrating.  I will rip every one of them off before reading any article in the magazine.  We scream from the rooftops when we get invasive ads in our online experience.  I wonder how many complain to magazine companies?  Or maybe it’s accepted.  Oh, and one last point.  I’m in no danger of being called a “tree hugger” anytime soon, but I do care about the environment.  That pile on my floor… that times the thousands of magazines out there must ultimately leave a carbon footprint the size of Godzilla!

OK, I’m done ranting.  Nothing of any value in this post.  Just needed to vent — and rethink the budget dollars I allocate to these things!

man it’s dark out there

December 3, 2008 at 10:49 pm | Posted in Business, Professional Development | Leave a comment

Coaches love catchy little sayings. I mean, we are full of ’em. I still remember these from various locker rooms over the years:

“You can measure a thoroughbreds speed with a stop watch, but it takes a race to measure his heart”

“Fatigue makes cowards of us all.”

“Character is what you do when nobody is watching.”

And there were countless others. So the other day I was giving an interview and was asked about the economy. I tend to be overly blunt sometimes, so I apparently gave an answer that seemed a bit depressing. My coworker who was there said, “That’s a great downer to end on!” And immediately, one of those slogans from coaching days past sprung to mind, and I added, “But you know, the darker it is around you, the brighter you can shine.”

I do believe that. I have blogged in the past about measuring your worth. I’ve talked about getting honest feedback and knowing where you stand. I’ve talked about differentiation and why it’s important that you know where you stand, whether your company is telling you they buy into differentiation or not. Why? Because right now, you’re being differentiated. We all are. More than ever. You can…

1) Panic.

2) Be grateful and sit around happy that you still have a job.

3) Make a name for yourself.

#1 is unproductive and unhealthy for some obvious reasons I won’t get into. I think you should ALWAYS do #2, but by itself, it leads to complacency. So there is no better time than right now to execute #3 with a passion. Your company needs you now more than ever. They need bright, passionate, dedicated, people who can find solutions to really difficult problems. This is a great challenge for all of us to find out what we’re made of. We will emerge from these tough times. But we can’t miss the chance to GROW through them. If we do, we — and our companies — will be so much stronger on the other end. One more sign than hung in our weight room:

“Without great challenge, there cannot be great accomplishment.”

Sometimes those corny signs make a lot of sense.

when bad is good

October 31, 2008 at 7:42 am | Posted in Business, Professional Development | Leave a comment

Pop Quiz.  You’re the manager over the following situation:

  • Objective: Maintain maximum number of product downloads.
  • History: Product downloads have increased 10% each month for the past year.
  • Action: Change methodology that has been in place for the past year and measure for 6 months.
  • Result: Downloads have decreased by 5% each month for the past six months.

Easy one, right?  Fire the person who ran that campaign!  But in the words of Lee Corso on College Gameday: “Not so fast, my friend.” The answer should be: “I don’t have near enough information.”

What if the result of continuing the current plan would have resulted in a 20% drop instead of 5%?  If that were the case, then although things got “worse” they were actually “better” than what could have been.  Ah, but now you’re dealing with “hypotheticals” as our presidential candidates have become fond of saying. But business is often about hypothetical situations and trying to maximize or mitigate them.

Before you make a risky change, you should do all you can to build consensus from folks after you explain the risks of doing nothing, and of making the change.  Even then, you’re likely to get some (or most) people pointing at the raw data and calling it a failure.  But part of your job should be to do everything you can to ensure that doesn’t happen.  It takes a lot of guts to do that because it’s easier to just do nothing, play it safe, and hope for the best.  But as it’s been said many times, “hope is not a plan.”  So be aggressive, but do it in a way that mitigates surprise reactions to raw data that you know may seem unflattering at first glance.

“bail outs” are vogue

October 31, 2008 at 7:40 am | Posted in Business | Leave a comment
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Looks like everyone is jumping on the bail out bandwagon.  Guess it’s just the thing to do these days.   I just thought this was an interesting use of words, and I’m sure quite intentional.

need help, go to someone who knows nothing

October 5, 2008 at 9:37 pm | Posted in Business, Professional Development | Leave a comment
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OK, so maybe not someone who knows absolutely nothing, but it may be a good time to connect with someone who has a fresh perspective on your problem. I was thinking about getting the best in the company, from multiple disciplines, into a room every so often to just think about problems. I think it would accomplish at least two things:

1) Makes you understand your problem well enough to explain it to someone who doesn’t know your particular field. That is always helpful.

2) They’re not jaded by any presuppositions in thinking about an answer.

Yeah, I’m sure some of the discussions will be eye-rolling fodder, but I think it would be a very interesting way to go about solving some tough market challenges. Oh, if we all only had 30 hours in a day, doing stuff like this would be no problem!

the wrong “right thing”

September 29, 2008 at 11:15 am | Posted in Business, Professional Development | 1 Comment
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How long do you fight the good fight, when you realize that things need to change, but that you are not going to be able to change them? When do you stop trying? How do you know success isn’t just one month away? How long do you fight to be an agent of change when you can’t control all the changes that are made? The bigger the company, and the lower you are on an org chart, the more interesting those questions become.

When I left coaching at Trinity, a top-25 nationally ranked school, I had a set of ideas on what was the “right” way to do things. And, I *was* right given my surroundings. When I went to CAL, a brand new program with 1/5th the players, it became quite a different story. I had to abandon what I knew was “right” at Trinity in lieu of what we could “execute” at CAL. We spent the first year crawling; spoon feeding them everything. We spent year 2 walking. In year 3 we started to jog, and in year 4&5 we were able to run. But it was a long process of education, building confidence, trust, and putting in things a little at a time.

I was just starting at CAL and meeting with an older coaching buddy of mine who had retired a few years back. I’m whizzing away on the board with the schemes and style I wanted to implement. He sat back and said, “Looks fantastic. Now put player names above the x’s and o’s.” So I did. Then he asked, “Can those names do what those lines are telling them to?” They couldn’t. That’s when I realized I needed to start by teaching them to crawl before we did anything else.

What’s “right” in theory can get screwed up really quickly when the reality doesn’t give you the tools you need. Maybe the most philosophically sophisticated saying of all applies here: “Don’t try and teach a pig to sing. You just frustrate yourself and irritate the pig.” Know your environment and adapt accordingly.

Google’s talent lacking experience?

September 26, 2008 at 1:24 pm | Posted in Business, Technology Trends | Leave a comment

My buddy Jackson had a great post about Google that reminded me of some of my musings on a very similar topic of the difference between knowledge and wisdom.

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