Category: Leadership

A Successful Businessperson Has to Learn to Say No

“The art of leadership is saying no, not yes. It’s very easy to say yes.” — Tony Blair

Tony Blair isn’t the only one who thinks that. So does Steve Jobs and Warren Buffett. Focus is everything.

One of the most evident signs of poor leadership is the inability to focus — it’s easy to say yes, and it’s very hard to say no.

Seymour Schulich elaborates on this in Get Smarter: Life and Business Lessons:

This piece of wisdom was instilled in me many years ago by Joe Rotman, an entrepreneur who is the benefactor of the Rotman School of Business at the University of Toronto. Many years ago, prior to the philanthropic work that made him famous, I arranged for a meeting so that I could gather the insight of an astute businessman who’d built a fortune in the resource business, primarily through oil and gas production.

“Every successful businessperson has to learn how to say no,” he told me that day. If you spend your life in business, you will see dozens or perhaps hundreds of potential deals. A small number will be highly attractive; most will be average or below average. The path to superior results is to accept only the best ideas — indeed, no venture capitalist or merchant banker could survive for very long without saying no to 90 per cent (or more) of the pitches he sees.

You can be diplomatic, firm, or a combination of the two, but you must be comfortable with the idea of handing out rejection. Rotman’s lesson became rooted deeply in my consciousness and caused me to be much less wimpy about turning down venture capital deals, start-up companies, and charities.

It’s not so much what you do but rather what you don’t do that matters.

Follow your curiosity to eight ways to say no with grace and style.

The Last Thing We Need Right Now is a Vision Statement

elephants

In this excerpt from Who Says Elephants Can’t Dance?, Louis V. Gerstner Jr. says something I wish tech companies would heed.

I said something at the press conference that turned out to be the most quotable statement I ever made:

“What I’d like to do now is put these announcements in some sort of perspective for you. There’s been a lot of speculation as to when I’m going to deliver a vision of IBM, and what I’d like to say to all of you is that the last thing IBM needs right now is a vision.” You could almost hear the reporters blink.

I went on: “What IBM needs right now is a series of very tough-minded, market-driven, highly effective strategies for each of its businesses— strategies that deliver performance in the marketplace and shareholder value. And that’s what we’re working on.

“Now, the number-one priority is to restore the company to profitability. I mean, if you’re going to have a vision for a company, the first frame of that vision better be that you’re making money and that the company has got its economics correct.

“And so we are committed to make this company profitable, and that’s what today’s actions are about.

“The second priority for the company,” I said, “is to win the battle in the customers’ premises. And we’re going to do a lot of things in that regard, and again, they’re not visions— they’re people making things happen to serve customers.”

I said we didn’t need a vision right now because I had discovered in my first ninety days on the job that IBM had file drawers full of vision statements. We had never missed predicting correctly a major technological trend in the industry. In fact, we were still inventing most of the technology that created those changes.

However, what was also clear was that IBM was paralyzed, unable to act on any predictions, and there were no easy solutions to its problems. The IBM organization, so full of brilliant, insightful people, would have loved to receive a bold recipe for success—the more sophisticated, the more complicated the recipe, the better everyone would have liked it.

It wasn’t going to work that way. The real issue was going out and making things happen every day in the marketplace.

Fixing IBM was all about execution. We had to stop looking for people to blame, stop tweaking the internal structure and systems. I wanted no excuses. I wanted no long-term projects that people could wait for that would somehow produce a magic turnaround. I wanted— IBM needed— an enormous sense of urgency.

Six Common Strategy Traps

Strategy could be the most over-used word since leadership. How many strategies can one organization have? A lot of people say “strategy” when they really mean a goal or objective. This is a strategy trap.

One of the best books on Strategy is Roger Martin and A. G. Lafley’s Playing to Win: How Strategy Really Works.

In this excerpt, they comment on the signals that a company has a worrisome strategy.

There is no perfect strategy—no algorithm that can guarantee sustainable competitive advantage in a given industry or business. But there are signals that a company has a particularly worrisome strategy. Here are six of the most common strategy traps:

  1. The do-it-all strategy: failing to make choices, and making everything a priority. Remember, strategy is choice.
  2. The Don Quixote strategy: attacking competitive “walled cities” or taking on the strongest competitor first, head-to-head. Remember, where to play is your choice. Pick somewhere you can have a chance to win.
  3. The Waterloo strategy: starting wars on multiple fronts with multiple competitors at the same time. No company can do everything well. If you try to do so, you will do everything weakly.
  4. The something-for-everyone strategy: attempting to capture all consumer or channel or geographic or category segments at once. Remember, to create real value, you have to choose to serve some constituents really well and not worry about the others.
  5. The dreams-that-never-come-true strategy: developing high-level aspirations and mission statements that never get translated into concrete where-to-play and how-to-win choices, core capabilities, and management systems. Remember that aspirations are not strategy. Strategy is the answer to all five questions in the choice cascade.
  6. The program-of-the-month strategy: settling for generic industry strategies, in which all competitors are chasing the same customers, geographies, and segments in the same way. The choice cascade and activity system that supports these choices should be distinctive. The more your choices look like those of your competitors, the less likely you will ever win.

These are strategic traps to be aware of as you craft a strategy.

Playing to Win is right up there with Good Strategy Bad Strategy on my list of must-reads for anyone seeking an understanding of strategy as it relates to business.

When Things Go Wrong: The Warren Buffett Way to Handle Problems

“Get it right, get it fast, get it out, get it over.”

***

In an interview with Jeff Cunningham, Warren Buffett hits on two principles that elude most of us.

Interviewer: I was reading a Lincoln quote the other day, “With public sentiment, nothing can fail. Without it, nothing can succeed.” Of course, he was talking about what led to the Emancipation Proclamation. When I think about your world, 330,000 people who are employees of Berkshire Hathaway or its subsidiaries, how do you send the message that they are being scrutinized under the microscope by the media at all times?

Buffett: I send a message to their managers. Those 330,000 people work for maybe 70 or so CEOs and in turn work for me. My job is to have those 70 CEOs sending out the right message. Every two years, I write them a very simple letter. It’s a page-and-a-half. I don’t believe in 200-page manuals because if you put out a 200-page manual, everybody’s looking for loopholes basically.

Page-and-a-half, it’s very hard for them to argue about what I’m talking about. I tell them that my reputation, Berkshire’s reputation, is in their hands. We’ve got all the money we need. We’d like to make more money but we’ve got all the money we need. We don’t have an ounce of reputation beyond what we need. We can’t afford to lose it. We never will trade reputation away for money.

They’re the ones that are the guardians of that. I want them to not only do what’s legal obviously, but I want them to judge every action by how it would appear on the front page of their local paper written by a smart but semi-unfriendly reporter who really understood it to be read by their family, their neighbors, their friends.

It has to pass that test as well. I tell them I don’t want anything around the lines. I tell them there’s plenty of money to be made in the center of the court. I’m 84. My eyes aren’t that good anymore. I can’t quite see the lines that well. Just keep it in the center of the court. If they have any questions, call me.

As for advice on what to do when you face a problem …

Interviewer: Even the occasional dust-up at Berkshire is big news. I’ll pick on Salomon only because it’s history now. It’s got a lot of time to reflect on that. When you think about what you went through there, what advice do you have for a CEO who’s on the media hot seat because of a similar situation?

Buffett: There are a couple pieces of advice on that. The first is that when you find out a bad news, correct that and if it’s necessary to report it, then the authorities report it to the media. The big problem with Salomon was not what a fellow named Mozer did which was to defy the US government, not ever a very good idea. But that could have been handled, but he reported…He didn’t report it.

John Meriwether, his supervisor, picked up on it in late April of 1991 and went to the president, the chairman and the chief legal counsel of Salomon and said, “Here’s what this fellow Mozer has been doing.” They all agreed it was wrong. They all agreed it was reportable to the Federal Reserve promptly. Unfortunately, nobody did anything.

In the middle of May, Mozer went out and did it again. Now, you’ve got a terrible problem because you knew the guy was a bad actor a few weeks earlier and he hadn’t reported it and that compounded there. Then, you’re in a real pickle.

When you find bad news, I say get it right, get it fast, get it out, get it over. Get it right is important. When they questioned, Mozer had done it there. But the get it fast and get it out, they missed on.

You’re going to get bad news. I got 330,000 people. I will guarantee you that probably dozens of them are doing something wrong right now. I just hope I find out about it early and the person below me finds out and lets me know if it’s bad enough and that they stop it.

You can’t have a city of 330,000 without an occasional [laughs] crime of some sort. It’s going to happen. You’ve got to do something about it fast when it does happen.

Ben Horowitz: The Struggle

“Life is a struggle.”
— Karl Marx

***

In The Hard Thing About Hard Things: Building a Business When There Are No Easy Answers, Ben Horowitz describes the struggle.

Every entrepreneur starts her company with a clear vision for success. You will create an amazing environment and hire the smartest people to join you. Together you will build a beautiful product that delights customers and makes the world just a little bit better. It’s going to be absolutely awesome.

Then, after working night and day to make your vision reality, you wake up to find that things did not go as planned. Your company did not unfold like the Jack Dorsey keynote that you listened to when you started. Your product has issues that will be very hard to fix. The market isn’t quite where it was supposed to be. Your employees are losing confidence and some of them have quit. Some of the ones that quit were quite smart and have the remaining ones wondering if staying makes sense. You are running low on cash and your venture capitalist tells you that it will be difficult to raise money given the impending European catastrophe. You lose a competitive battle. You lose a loyal customer. You lose a great employee. The walls start closing in. Where did you go wrong? Why didn’t your company perform as envisioned? Are you good enough to do this? As your dreams turn into nightmares, you find yourself in The Struggle.

It’s at this point that you start to question things. This is when things get dark. Depression sets in. Options look narrow. You just want to hit snooze over and over again and hide under the covers. The Struggle, however, is also where greatness is born.

The Struggle is when you wonder why you started the company in the first place.

The Struggle is when people ask you why you don’t quit and you don’t know the answer.

The Struggle is when your employees think you are lying and you think they may be right.

The Struggle is when food loses its taste.

The Struggle is when you don’t believe you should be CEO of your company. The Struggle is when you know that you are in over your head and you know that you cannot be replaced. The Struggle is when everybody thinks you are an idiot, but nobody will fire you. The Struggle is where self-doubt becomes self-hatred.

The Struggle is when you are having a conversation with someone and you can’t hear a word that they are saying because all you can hear is The Struggle.

The Struggle is when you want the pain to stop. The Struggle is unhappiness.

The Struggle is when you go on vacation to feel better and you feel worse.

The Struggle is when you are surrounded by people and you are all alone. The Struggle has no mercy.

The Struggle is the land of broken promises and crushed dreams. The Struggle is a cold sweat. The Struggle is where your guts boil so much that you feel like you are going to spit blood.

The Struggle is not failure, but it causes failure. Especially if you are weak. Always if you are weak.

Most people are not strong enough.

Every great entrepreneur from Steve Jobs to Mark Zuckerberg went through The Struggle and struggle they did, so you are not alone. But that does not mean that you will make it. You may not make it. That is why it is The Struggle.

The Struggle is where greatness comes from.

The Struggle is where we turn adversity into opportunity.

Ben offers some things that may help you through the struggle. Here are some things to help you through the struggle.

1. Don’t put it all on your shoulders

It is easy to think that the things that bother you will upset your people more. That’s not true. The opposite is true. Nobody takes the losses harder than the person most responsible. Nobody feels it more than you. You won’t be able to share every burden, but share every burden that you can. Get the maximum number of brains on the problems even if the problems represent existential threats. When I ran Opsware and we were losing too many competitive deals, I called an all-hands and told the whole company that we were getting our asses kicked, and if we didn’t stop the bleeding, we were going to die. Nobody blinked. The team rallied, built a winning product and saved my sorry ass.

2. This is not checkers; this is mutherfuckin’ chess

Technology businesses tend to be extremely complex. The underlying technology moves, the competition moves, the market moves, the people move. As a result, like playing three-dimensional chess on Star Trek, there is always a move. You think you have no moves? How about taking your company public with $2M in trailing revenue and 340 employees, with a plan to do $75M in revenue the next year? I made that move. I made it in 2001, widely regarded as the worst time ever for a technology company to go public. I made it with six weeks of cash left. There is always a move.

3. Focus on the road

When they teach you how to drive a racecar, they tell you to focus on the road when you go around a turn. They tell you that because if you focus on the wall, then you will drive straight into the wall. If you focus on how you might fail, then you will fail. Even if you only have one bullet left in the gun and you have to hit the target, focus on the target. You might not hit it, but you definitely won’t hit if you focus on other things.

4. Play long enough and you might get lucky

In the technology game, tomorrow looks nothing like today. If you survive long enough to see tomorrow, it may bring you the answer that seems so impossible today.

5. Don’t take it personally

The predicament that you are in is probably all your fault. You hired the people. You made the decisions. But you knew the job was dangerous when you took it. Everybody makes mistakes. Every CEO makes thousands of mistakes. Evaluating yourself and giving yourself an “F” doesn’t help.

6. Remember that this is what separates the women from the girls

If you want to be great, this is the challenge. If you don’t want to be great, then you never should have started a company.

The Hard Thing About Hard Things: Building a Business When There Are No Easy Answers offers a piercing look into the hard choices that leaders must make.

The Peter Principle and the Law of Crappy People

If you’ve ever worked in an organization, you’ve no doubt come across someone in senior management and asked yourself how they ever got promoted.

The Peter Principle, coined by Dr. Laurence J. Peter and Raymond Hull in their 1969 book The Peter Principle, contends that, in a hierarchy, people are sooner or later promoted to positions which they are no longer skilled to handle. This is their “level of incompetence.” This is where they stay.

James March offers some compelling insight into why this happens.

In his book High Output Management, Andy Grove points out that this is largely unavoidable because there is no way to know a priori at what point the person will be incapable of handling further promotions.

In The Hard Thing About Hard Things: Building a Business When There Are No Easy Answers Ben Horowitz discusses the Law of Crappy People.

The Law of Crappy People states: For any title level in a large organization, the talent on that level will eventually converge to the crappiest person with the title. The rationale behind the law is that the other employees in the company with lower titles will naturally benchmark themselves against the crappiest person at the next level. For example, if Jasper is the worst vice president in the company, then all of the directors will benchmark themselves against Jasper and demand promotions as soon as they reach his low level of competency.

Horowitz suggests the best way to overcome this is with a properly constructed and disciplined hiring process.

Ideally, the promotion process should yield a result similar to the very best karate dojos. In top dojos, in order to achieve the next level (for example, being promoted from a brown belt to a black belt), you must defeat an opponent in combat at that level. This guarantees that a new black belt is never a worse fighter than the worst current black belt.

Frustratingly, there is no exact analogue to a fistfight in business, so how can we preserve quality without actual combat?

To begin, start with an extremely crisp definition not only of the responsibilities at each level but also of the skill required to perform the duties. When describing the skills, avoid the generic characterizations such as “must be competent at managing a P&L” or “must have excellent management skills.” In fact, the best leveling tools get extremely specific and even name names: “should be a superstar recruiter— as good as Jenny Rogers.”

Next, define a formal process for all promotions. One key requirement of the process should be that promotions will be leveled across groups. If you let a manager or a single chain of command determine promotions unilaterally, then it’s possible that, for example, HR will have five vice presidents and Engineering only one. One way to level across groups is to hold a regular promotions council that reviews every significant promotion in the company. When a manager wishes to promote an employee, she will submit that employee for review with an explanation of why she believes her employee satisfies the skill criteria required for the level. The committee should then compare the employee with both the level’s skill description and the skills of the other employees at that level to determine whether to approve the promotion. In addition to ensuring fairness and level quality, this process will serve to educate your entire management team on the skills and accomplishments of the employees being submitted for promotion.

Most management teams I’ve worked with spend too little time on promotions, which encourages politics. Employees see gaps in the process and focus on exploiting them. Another big mistake is hiring by consensus, which leads to hiring for a lack of weakness rather than a strength. This kills organizations.