Saturday, August 28, 2010

New Site @

I’m thrilled to announce that we've got a new site at  

I’ve brought along all the books from the old site, so I’m just gonna keep going without missing a beat. Hope you like the new layout, and if you want to follow along, please add my RSS feed at feed:// You can also get my daily tidbits via Twitter@21tigermike and even subscribe to the latest Book Reviews right in your email inbox by entering your email into the form on the right side of the new page.

Hope you like the new site, and hope to read your comments soon!

Michael Robson

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

"The One Minute Manager" by Ken Blanchard and Spencer Johnson

“I read a book a long time ago; it was called The One Minute Manager.  It says that when you have people working for you, and they do something wrong, get on them for one minute, and then get back out.” Shaquille O'Neal. 4 time NBA Champion. Kajillionaire. MBA. Businessman.

I figure one good turn deserves another: we go from LeBron James to Shaquille O'Neal, who recommended this book, and now disciplines his teammates oncourt, for exactly a minute, then gets back to work.

So when I was back in Canada, I loaded up on books, and bought this one right away. That Shaq testimonial (vague as it was) was huge: here's a guy that grew up military-style. He's been a huge force, not just physically, but of personality, everywhere he's gone. And his confidence and persuasiveness are undeniable. Players want to play on this guy's team. Not just because he's a great player, but because he's a great boss-- a self-described one minute manager.

This book is really short, can be read in about an hour, so again, a short review is in order. If you like the review, get the book. If you're interested in any kind of leadership position in your career, this is a no-brainer. I'll cover some stuff in here, but, for the the details, you need to pick up the book.

I can, of course, talk about what 1 minute of management is actually for.

One minute management starts by establishing with your partners and staff what it is you expect of them, putting it down on paper, and letting them work off that description. Right off the bat, I thought about my first job in China. Sitting behind a desk in this huge office, waiting for someone (anyone?) to come show me how to do my job. The head of the company is too busy, and my coworkers were too busy doing their jobs. The very limited guidance I eventually got was useless. What I wanted to a One Minute Manager. I wanted to know how to do it right.

Now that I bring people into my current company, I'd love to establish '1MM' relationships with them. Get them educated about the products, then once they know it, crack down on them if there's any slipups, but just for a minute. New staff/partners, ideally, will start working, according to that paper (concise, just one sheet for each goal, 3 goals tops), and when they get it right, I'll sit down with them, or phone them up, and let them know how awesome they're doing. 

Overtime, they become better and better at the job, and you don't have to praise them anymore. They know they're good. Once they're experienced, they're striving for perfection, and they need you to watch out for them to slip up, make a mistake that is clearly a mistake (based on the goals you set up), and tell them about it so it doesn't happen again. Respectfully.

A few keys here:
  • Don't fake any of this stuff. Pretending to praise someone is not cool. Pretending to want someone to learn is not helpful. None of this is an act.
  • We are not praising people and condemning people. We love our partners and staff, no matter what they do. We are praising and reprimanding their behaviour. You have to make this clear.
  • This is not a covert operation: tell your staff what you plan to do. If you're hiring a new assistant, put down on paper what your expect of her (specific behaviours, not vague words like, appreciate, care, support), one copy for you and one for her. She knows you'll praise her early on, then overtime, be tough on her with mistakes. Respectfully.

In time, your management will be a few '1 minute talks' per week, and one staff meeting per week. You know, so you can get back to leading people, not babysitting them.

Now get back to work.  ;)

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

"Lebron James: The Making of an MVP" by Terry Pluto and Brian Windhorst

"I don't know the key to success, but the key to failure is trying to please everybody. "
Bill Cosby, Comedian

King James. Bron bron. The Decision.

It's been a pretty wild couple weeks for the King, which makes it a perfect time for this review. Months ago, I was watching Lebron's terrific documentary "More than a Game (2008)" and was so captivated by the story, and Lebron's ability to get great guys around him in High School, and to push them to greatness, I ordered the book.

The first thing you have to know about Lebron, and how he compares to guys like Wilt, Larry Bird, and Michael, is that LBJ really wants you to like him. 

LeBron didn't have a relationship with his father. His father left young LeBron and his mother Gloria early on. It's because of her strength and devotion that LeBron is a Superstar today.

I know, I know. It's practically a cliché, but I have to ask: Is it an asset or a weakness to want to please other people? Lebron wants his teammates to love him; he wants his city to love him; he wants his country to love him---LBJ's even taking Mandarin classes so the Chinese will love him too! A lot of kids grow up trying to impress their parents, their teachers, impress the cool kids, impress girls, impress potential bosses. In that regard, Lebron is no different, but his is a story, strangely, of world beating success and (at least, at the time this book was published) international adulation. It doesn't exactly lend itself to existential reflection, the way Bill Cosby intended (though Dr. Huxtable's words are undeniably poignant).

At any rate, that's how it happened. When LeBron was a kid, his mom would move them around all the time, so he'd been in 10 different schools by the time he was 8 years old. Very early on, his classmates described him as this "spongy guy that wanted to be accepted." He tried to be likable and make friends as best he could, but he never knew when he'd have to pick up his things and say goodbye again. 

Instead of keeping up the unsustainable pace, his mother decided he should stay with a close family, the Walkers, while she worked. It turned out to be the best thing for Lebron. This is where he learned his incredible discipline, and finally got some structure in his young life. LeBron, despite being a freakish athlete (his great physique and court vision is partly due to his playing both football and basketball at the same time in high school) he was a great student too. And his teachers, by and large, loved him. So far so good on the LBJ love train.

Fun Tidbit: By the way, it also helps that LeBron was born on December 30th. According to Malcolm Gladwell, when it comes to amateur athletics, size ( more specifically, the timing of your birthday) matters.

The Walkers instilled the discipline and self respect, that this kid would not just be a jock, but an all-around man of principle ( I can hear the Cleveland fans grinding their teeth already). It was critical that LeBron saw people with dignified lives around him, not just a world full of celebrities on TV and dope dealers on the street. Lebron learned that it was a good thing to be a good man, a hard worker and a  contributor to society.

So Lebron and his best friends, ever since the move to the Walkers, started hanging out all the time. No matter what they did, they were together. Lebron was starting to get his roots, and get the family he never had. Basketball was just an excuse to be with them.

As Bron took his blossoming game (and frame) to High School, his friends were right there beside him.
And they quickly became the best team in the country. By grade 11, his coach figured he's never see the inside of a college gym: this kid... was ready for the NBA.

When he finally suited up for Clevelend in 2003, Lebron took the basketball part in stride. It was everything else that just didn't sit right. The Cleveland roster was a joke, with league couchsurfers like Darius Miles and Ricky Davis. Then coach Paul Silas made it his number one priority that these bad players did not taint James with their selfish attitudes. Soon, they were gone. Silas was getting great players on the proverbial bus, and kicking bad ones off.

Over and Over, coaches and teammates say Lebron has the right attitude for the game. Win with a pass, win with a shot, win with a steal, whatever it takes, Lebron will do it. Oh yeah, and if he hasn't got it in his game, he'll add it in the Summer. Whatever it takes. Even if it means giving up the crown.

The Decision

After all those highlights in the Cleveland uniform, and all the great moments, the King decided to change his address. 

Maybe it was the clash, between the joy he felt in High School, and the pressure he felt being the go-to guy on the Cavs, that pushed him to sign with the Miami Heat. He just wanted to be part of a great group of guys again. Lebron, Dwayne Wade, and Chris Bosh, fellow draft classmen, as well as fellow Team USA Gold Medalists, will totally dominate the Eastern Conference starting in November. For a league and a culture that's constantly being accused of being egotistical and selfish, this is not a one man show. The Miami Heat will… actually…be a great team. Just like Old times in St. Vincent St. Mary High.

Lebron could very well win a Championship (or 8) in Miami, but it's almost impossible that Bill Cosby's words will be proven wrong here. As LBJ moves towards the ultimate prize on what will likely become the most despised, feared team in the NBA (remember the Super Villian Alien Team from the movie Space Jam?) , it appears he'll finally have to deal with his ultimate fear: being hated by millions.

It's about priorities. Somewhere along the line, LBJ's combination of incredible physical talent, and selfless team play, Media charisma and sly off-court business moves, turned against him. His two goals are in direct competition now. I really believe he's made the right choice. Rather be hated by millions of total strangers than have no rings.

Or maybe he's just sacrificing the 2010 love for the Hall of Fame love.

Tuesday, July 06, 2010

Danny Meyer "Setting the Table: The Transforming Power of Hospitality in Business"

Not being a foodie (food aficionado/gourmand) myself, I hadn't heard of Danny Meyer until stock picker/funnyman/investment coach Jim Cramer mentioned him on Mad Money. Danny Meyer was mentioned numerous times of having picked a handful of stocks that met his standards, which he dubbed his "Hospitality Index" (more on this later), and how great those stocks had done in the market. 

Was there something to Danny's restauranteur flair that could be applied to a wide variety of stocks from Banks, to Industrial stocks, to Telecom? Apparently there was. But first, who the heck is Danny Meyer?

Danny grew up around food, and Hedonism, his whole life. The family would spend extended periods of time in Europe (particularly Italy and France) when he was growing up, and in his twenties, Danny spent extensive time there working for his father's tourism company. All the while Danny went from restaurant to restaurant, cafe to cafe, sampling the very best pastas, seafoods and wines Europe had to offer. 

Over the years, he built up quite a nest egg from his great tourism job, and later a sales job in New York. But it didn't feel right to be a money guy or a salesman. He was a foodie at heart. All his friends were in the restaurant business, and he felt it was time to jump in.

Danny tells the story of how he grew from his very first Union Square Cafe, to a massive Group of First tier New York eateries, from French food, to Indian, and American Burgers, and how he learned to be a great boss.

There had to be something to this guy. Something everyone else was missing. Danny lays his cards on the table:

"Hospitality exists when you believe the other person is on your side."

Why is that sentence so striking? Because we remember overwhelming positive feelings in rare cases where that sentence has been true, and we associate cynical, cold feelings whenever we feel a company is just trying to take advantage of us. If Danny's restaurants embody this message, is it any wonder he has so many regular customers? Is it any wonder he's been successful in so many different styles of cuisine? Is it any wound budding foodies desperately want to work for this company?

Some of the anecdotes that relay Meyer's version of Hospitality will really blow you away. Hardly anyone seems to get what Danny has: Today's dollars don't matter, it's Tomorrow's dollars that matter.

In the restaurant business you have to have 3 great servings before a customer will really fall in love with your restaurant. Great ones. One reason Danny's company has been such a hit is they go the extra mile, which is why people become hooked, and then become regulars. What do I mean by 'go the extra mile'?

One particularly amazing story from "Setting the Table" is a couple coming into the restaurant and revealing that it was their anniversary that night. It turned out the man had a favourite bottle of Champagne waiting for them at home. When he asked the Maitre D if it was alright sitting in the freezer,he started to panic: the Maitre D explained that,  left unattended, his Champagne would explode when frozen!  The man wanted to cancel the dinner, and rush home to move the Champagne, but the Maitre D wouldn't let that happen. Knowing their anniversary night would be ruined if the couple had to leave the restaurant, the Matrie D offered to go over to his house, and remove the bottle from the freezer. He even left a box of Chocolates next to the fridge as congratulations on this special occasion. The couple was stunned at this man's willingness to go the extra mile.

I know what you're thinking: "That kind of thoughtfulness, that kind of devotion, care, for the customer… is that even possible? What about profits? How can they run a business like that?? "

The same way the rest of the 'Danny Meyer Hospitality Index' companies run their businesses: they know that by being the best, and creating amazing moments like that one, they'll have hoards of 'regulars' night after night, year after year. Recession, Boom, it doesn't make a difference. They do quite well.

There's obviously a ton of stuff in here, I can't go into it all, but I want to highlight something so brilliantly simple Danny did early on in the days of Union Square Cafe: played Sports.

He took out a sheet of paper and cooked up anything negative he could think of about the restaurant. What would detractors say? "The location is bad? The food is too expensive? I have to wait too long for a reserved table? The tables are too small? The wine list is too short?" No matter how small, Danny went down the list of every conceivable weakness and instituted policies to not just meet those complaints, but turn them into strengths. He called it playing Defense. For Offense, just look at all the great things the restaurant was doing and could do.

Here's the brilliance: just like in sports, your Offence doesn't matter if your defence has holes. 

in Sports, they say, Defence wins Championships. If you can handle Defence, the Offence is a breeze (especially with such great players/servers and a great coach/chef). And Danny certainly has done just that. Everyday, thousands of New Yorkers descend on his great restaurants, not because their hungry (they are), not because the food is of such delectable quality (it is), but because of the way the servers at any of the Union Square Cafe Group Restaurants makes them feel. And that's something every single company can do better at.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

"Showing Up for Life: Thoughts on the Gifts of a Lifetime" by Bill Gates Sr.

"Eighty Percent of Success is Showing up."
Woody Allen, Comedian, Writer, Director, Oscar Winner

This is going to be a quick review, because it really was a quick read, but packed with great insights. I decided to grab this book a while ago after seeing a terrific interview with Bill Gates (Junior) and his dad (Senior) on Charlie Rose last year. Around the time everyone was raving about Outliers (Malcolm Gladwell's latest in a string of Bestsellers) here was the perfect example to prove Gladwell's point. 

Gladwell told the story of Bill Gates' life in great detail, outlining just how very impossibly lucky this kid was. But not only did he go to the right schools and live in the right town, he also had the right parents. And I think it's worth exploring how someone who works incredibly hard, and has made a lots of right moves, got a lot of that from his parents.

"Showing Up for Life" is not a Biography at all. It reads more like a letter from Senior to his family: each of his children, and his two wives (sadly, both were taken by terminal illnesses). Bill's maternal mother Mary, contributed a great deal to Bill's incredibly competitive nature. Early on, the Gates family, along with five other families, would head to wilderness for camping trips. Because they pooled their resources together, they were able to secure a cabin on the lake, where everyone could play games, and hold competitions of all sorts. Competition drove almost every aspect of life, whether they were playing capture the flag at Camp Cheerio, or playing a game of cards to see who got to skip out on washing dishes after supper. Mary had a knack for bringing fun to whatever they were doing.

That's a big deal. We sometimes think of these incredibly successful Entrepreneurs and think only in terms of dollar signs. We forget that this was the funnest thing in the world for them. In the Early Microsoft days, coding MS DOS for 12 hrs straight, then grabbing some pizza with your friends before going right back to the office again was really fun. Hey, they were geeks.

Also, to Gladwell's point, the charitable work that Bill and Melinda Gates are now doing did not start with Bill Jr. Some people, myself included, assumed he was an egomaniac, or was doing it because he felt guilty about his dominance in the PC market. Some even believe he just wants a Nobel Peace prize. But those people can't fully understand Bill Gates Jr, unless they first understand the man he strives to be: Senior had been involved with charities long before Bill Gates ever met MS co-Founder Paul Allen. In fact, Mary often asked her young children how much of their allowance they planned to give to charity.  

I thought it was amazing that Mary actually knew the CEO of IBM in the mid-80's, through their joint work with United Way. When he first heard about a little company in Seattle called Microsoft, he remarked, "Oh, that's Mary Gates' boy." And when Bill married Melinda in 1994 (up to that point, she was a product manager at Microsoft) her 'new job' became working on the charitable foundation full time.

And the idea of giving everything away goes a lot farther back than Bill Gates Sr. This would not be the first time Bill Gates was compared to John D. Rockefeller. Rockefeller was the greatest Oil tycoon there ever was, getting in at the turn of the 20th century, and ultimately becoming one of the greatest Philanthropists there ever was too. His legacy, passed down from generation to generation, is everywhere, from Malaria research to working on AIDS treatment, and helping famers in third world countries grow more bountiful crops. Everywhere Bill went, he saw the Rockefeller name. 

I don't want this to turn into a story about Bill Gates, because it's not. All the children are incredibly successful, which is kind of staggering. Bill Senior and Mary, and the way they chose to expose their children to new ideas, and new experiences, are the real story. And though Bill Senior, a lawyer by trade, was always finically well-off, they never seemed to let it go to their heads. In fact, there isn't a trace of ego anywhere with any of these guys

I found something striking with Bill Senior: being Christians and very rich, you would think they were fighting new tax bills left and right, as many talking heads on Network TV do. But if anything the Gates family is fighting for more taxes, every chance they get. Bill Senior actually got his start, when he returned from World War 2. The American recovery plan contained something called the GI Bill, which promised to pay for all those who served in WW2 to go to College. It was thought to be costly and extravagant at the time, but it worked: filling the offices and companies with young bright minds which would put America on a path to unprecedented growth. The Marshall plan was also widely criticized; the plan would put money forward to help America's allies recover from the ravages of War, but contributed to a sense of community and stability around the world.

These are two big pieces of legislation Senior picked out to demonstrate his inspiration for 'giving back.' And that's basically what a tax is: giving back to those who paid for the schools, the roads, the police departments that created the society in which you could, say, start a tech company. 

When I said I don't detect a hint of Ego in these guys, its more like, the Ego has grown. Sometimes we say 'WE' to mean our family, or our favorite team, or our city, or even our country (like in the World Cup). But what happens when it grows beyond that to mean the whole world? You feel pain when people on the other side of the world are hurting. Maybe that's why giving away 20 billion dollars, isn't just a 'nice thing to do' for these guys; but rather, it looks like so much fun.

"Dad, the next time someone asks if you're the real Bill Gates, I hope you say 'Yes.' I hope you tell them you're all the things the other one strives to be" 
Bill Gates Jr. Philanthropist, Technokid

Wednesday, June 09, 2010

"If You can Talk, You can Write" by Joel Saltzman

I got this book ages ago. It was only on my last visit back to my parent's place that I dug it up again, and knew I had to revisit its great ideas. 

But I debated putting this one up on the site. Is it about business? Hardly. Does it have anything to do with China, or Asia, at all? Nope. But it dawned on me, that one of my greatest assets, and one of my greatest joys, is writing. And even if you're not interested in Short Stories (something I've loved to do since I was a kid), you can still benefit massively from a book that will turn your annoying frustrating emails into a smooth lyrical flow. I swear this is true:  I actually get compliments from colleagues that my weekly progress reports are actually.... engaging and enjoyable and to read. I've found that a few guidelines can fix almost any piece of writing, and much of it comes right from this book.

One look at the title, and you already know the first message in the book: write the same way you talk. What a lot of people do is talk like normal people, but when they pick up a pen, or fire up the Word Processor, they start to over think everything, even before completing the first sentence.

"No, I've got to start somewhere else. No, I'll talk about this later. Now, how would I ask that?"

Stop trying to 'write', just talk on paper (on the screen). Write and write and write. Again, this isn't just about Short Stories or Novels. Everything you do. 

Writing an email to Mom? Get it all on down on the email. Write and write and write, and don't block anything. Forget about order of paragraphs, formatting and grammar. That's the easy stuff. The hardest part about writing is that the vast majority of people refuse to write the way they talk. They think that writing is somehow 'special' and everything must sound like a Royal Scroll from Her Majesty the Queen. They also think that they're smart enough to edit 'on the fly' and thus refuse to put anything down on the page, unless it's perfect. Stop that. See the delete key? It's your friend.

How much editing and erasing can you expect to do? A ton. 80% of your first draft is probably a confusing redundant mess. As Saltzman brilliantly puts it, the best writers usually end up with this on the first draft:

"Blah, Blah, Blah, Blah, Blah, Blah, Blah, Blah, Blah, Blah, Blah, GOLD!"

As a boy, I lived in the countryside, with little else to distract myself, other than reading books, and drawing. Like most youngsters, I had a vivid imagination, only I was, perhaps more than most, often in the position to write about it (or doodle about it). Fortunately there was encouragement to try writing stories in school; I wrote things like mysteries and fantasy stories. One in particular, seemed to be blatant copy of J.R.R Tolkein's Lord of the Rings ( of which I'd read about 10 pages before buckling under the weight of the tome) but it didn't matter--my third grade teacher thought it was neat since it was in French.

Around the age of 10 I was lucky enough to join a weekly Writers group, and the instructor would push us to think out of the box: writing an entire story with pure dialogue; writing an entire passage of very short sentences; taking a real life news clipping and then turning it into a full blown story with background, characters, etc. 

In high school, my favorite class was often English, where they encouraged us to get even crazier. Often the final exams included a prompt essay, where they would give you a choice of three words (say Dazed, Rapture, Harmony) which would 'prompt' you to write a 3 page exploration of whatever came to mind. Like Jimi Hendrix whipping and flailing for 10 minutes on a single snippet of a melody, you had to love the language to really nail it. Looking back, the keys were 

a) the ability to let go of your perfectionist mind,
b) the ability to visualize and vividly describe what you see in your mind, and 
c) the ability to edit the hell out of it, once the first draft was done.

As Saltzman reminds us "Writing is Rewriting." Any great piece of art, whether its a musical piece, or a great essay, or a beautiful engraving, has been drafted, and edited like mad. The timeless Comedian Jerry Seinfeld once commented that if he couldn't edit his jokes, he'd be nowhere as a professional comedian. He is a brilliant editor of jokes, more than just a very funny guy. Seinfeld admitted he often wrestles with a single line of a joke for hours on end. In comedy, if you can get a 10 word line down to 7, it's 30% funnier. That's the math of the laugh, I guess. 

When I was in high school, my English teacher, Mr. Digby, used the word terse. I love that word. Getting a 5 line paragraph down to 3, like Seinfeld, gave the words weight, and power. Editing creatively leads to writing that is layered, and a pleasure to read. But be careful: you have to walk the fine line between flowery puff (too many words, unclear, no direction) and boring writing (just the facts, no life, no pizazz). And to be honest, that's Editing. Writing is Rewriting.

So let's take a step back, for those who may not be interested in Creative Writing, but have to write everyday for work, and wonder how to improve it (this is huge for those for whom English is a Second Language). The key to great emails, or great memos, around the office, is to read what you wrote aloud and be diligent in your editing. Note: I said aloud, not loud. Just read it to yourself, and stop whenever something sounds wrong, or not what you meant it to sound like.

 Just as before, if you can say it in 1 line, instead of 2, that's progress. If you can use 10 words instead of 15, that's improvement. Also, consider the tone of the writing. If you're writing a prospective customer, don't kiss his butt too much, but don't be cold, and lifeless either. If you're writing to your boss, you want to sound confident, but not overstep your bounds. Never ever give off the air of arrogance or know-it-all-ness to your bosses and managers. Just read your own work aloud, and ask yourself if that is how you meant it to sound. If you can talk, you can write. If you read it to yourself, the problems and strengths of the emails will be immediately apparent to you. You may need to read through the whole thing 3 or 4 times to get it just right. 

Do you really think I just one-off these blog posts? No way. I don't post these until I've read the whole thing out loud and have smoothed out the rough spots. Things you wouldn't even imagine will come out... like a huge gap in logic between two paragraphs. Or a word that's been used 4 times in the span of 2 lines. That's a no no. It's lazy writing.

OK you read it out loud, but it's still not Shakespeare. Wanna see more of your mistakes? Take a couple hours off, go for a walk, catch a movie, go play sports. Then come back, you won't believe how 'wrong' your first draft was. And your 2nd draft will be great.

Want to do even better than that? Take a day off. Or a week. The goal here is Objectivity. The more of it you have the more you'll know what the reader will think of when they read your work. And that's how you right something that sounds as great and reads as smoothly as 'Catcher in the Rye'. 

That's good public speaking. And that's good writing.

I've tried to summarize some of the great ideas, but there's a ton more in here. Joel Saltzman has written a book that oozes the love for writing from every page. If you're the creative type and have always wanted to turn your unique stories into a career as a writer, definitely pick this up.  Even if all you do is turn out the greatest emails your boss has ever seen, it's worth it.

Monday, May 31, 2010

"Good to Great" by Jim Collins

This book came out almost 10 years ago, but within its pages, are some of the most thought provoking results on Business Excellence. Actually, Excellence in general. The great thing about studying Public Companies is that we can study their freely available numbers, we can break down their acceleration of growth, and we can talk to their bosses and innovators.

And that's exactly what Jim Collins and his team of researchers did. They found a handful of companies that had huge sustained growth for 15 years and asked "What are they doing? How did they get here? Why are they so rare?"

What they found were a string of totally non-MBA answers. A few simple concepts and only 10 or 20 leaders in the country could hold themselves to. Wow.

First, the leaders: we know that leaders in business can be very loud, very cool, very power hungry and egotistic.But these types of characters were nowhere to be found in the study. What did the leaders of these great companies (like Nucor, Gillette, Wells Fargo) have in common, when it came to leadership?

Diligence, and Modesty. That's it.

If you can find a guy or girl who will work all day and all night, and will do whatever it takes to rigorously do the homework (on the competition, on new technology, when it comes to hiring, when it comes to expansion), who is modest to a fault, that's your future CEO.

And they discovered something remarkable about their compensation too: it doesn't make a difference.
All the nonsense and backdoor deals going on on Wall Street, and here's a group of the best companies in the last 15 years, according to Wall Street, and the compensation was not a motivating factor, and did not move the stock price up or down. So what was it then?

These old fashioned, hard working, modest guys just wanted their company (not themselves) to grow and be great. Part of that modesty the leaders were not going for glory but diligently, and rigorously, doing the hard things to promote the company, the group, the collective. And here's a crazy thought: if you really want your company to be great, you'll set it up so that it will continue to be great, even after you retire! How many retired CEO's do you know that lose sleep thinking about their old company?How many companies have you worked for, that you've worried about, long after you'd already left the job? That's real passion, loyalty, and care for the company. And it's rare.

There's another theme that really hit home for me, on a professional level and a personal level. They call it the Hedgehog concept based on an old parable of the Hedgehog: 

In the woods, the Fox is always trying to eat the Hedgehog, but never succeeds. He tries various tricks, pouncing in the day, pouncing at night, being slow, being fast, luring the Hedgehog, or a surprise attack, but he just fails and fails and fails. The Hedgehog, with none of the speed, agility, or aggression of the Fox, survives with one simple defense. Whenever it sees the Fox coming, it just rolls up into a ball with those spikes out. The Fox can do nothing when the spikes are out, so it eventually gives up and wanders off. The Fox goes hungry and the Hedgehog thrives.

How could such an weird looking creature be the basis for business and personal excellence? By sticking to one thing. Basically, the Fox can be compared to a company with tons of great technology, a bunch of different projects, and lots of resources. By bouncing around to different things, it never really focuses its energy on one thing. And why does that matter? Because it never gets to be the best in the world at one thing that way. And so you never hear about them.

As people, we can consider the Hedgehog an inspirational figure of sorts: it is born with this one talent, or trick. It exploits that talent every single day, and as a result it thrives. It doesn't aspire to be like the Fox in speed and agility, and even grace. It just plods along, and slowly but surely, becomes great at being...a Hedgehog. Think of a Comedian that works on this one set of jokes, for 15 years. For 15 years you never hear about the guy, and then suddenly, BOOM, he's everywhere. You start seeing clips on Youtube, you hear he has a new TV show and movie deal in the works, and your friend think he's the funniest thing on Earth. Thats how it happens. Not overnight, but a long, gradual, almost mundane process, of sticking to one great thing.

Back to business, we found that this is one of the hardest things for great companies to do: say no to trendy, cool, hot new projects that threaten to pull the company far away from their core excellence.
For example, in the book, the American Pharmacy Wal-Greens decided they wanted to be the most convenient pharmacy in the country. That was it. Once they had that idea, all decisions were easy. It meant doing some crazy things, (like closing a store, only to reopen a store a block away with better access from the main traffic routes, etc) but it got them all the answers. If you can prioritize, you can answer any question. And you can only prioritize if you have rigor and discipline.

The first two factors of the Hedgehog concept are Passion and 'Best in the World Focus.' The third and final factor is, at last, about money. After all, I didn't say these companies were the coolest in the US (a steel company and a drug company?), they were being highlighted because of their consistently excellent performance on the stock market.

The final factor was choosing a metric that defined how they measured excellence, and zeroing in on that target. These guys could aim to maximize profit per store, profit per employee, profit per country, profit per customer visit, anything they wanted. And each one had its own implications for future plans. The bottom line is this, the third factor is the way the company measures how well people are doing their jobs. Walgreens wanted to maximize profit per customer visit. That meant every time someone walked in the door, all the advertisers had done their jobs. Now it was time to see just how great the experience was to be in a Walgreens store. If it was great, profit would trend up. If it was confusing, noisy, over crowded, empty shelves, rude staff, the profit would trend down. It's that simple. By zeroing in on this one metric, Walgreens beat the market by a mile, year after year after year.

There's a ton in here, that I just couldn't get to. If you're into it, go pick it up, its a great read, lots of amazing anecdotes in here. Yes its a business book, and yes I've got some terrific ideas for my own job, but you can get a tremendous amount of personal insight as well. Here's food for thought : what one thing can I do, day in, day out, and eventually be the best in the world at?

Friday, May 21, 2010

"Meeting the Shadow: The Hidden Power of the Dark Side of Human Nature" edited by Connie Zweig and Jeremiah Abrams

After another bout of writing, some to do with Psychology, I was reminded of an incredible book that I should share on here, about peeking into the Shadow. This is really mind cool stuff-- a collection of short essays on the 'Shadow'...not to be read front to back, but nibbled on.

If you're not familiar with the term, "Shadow," Psychologists Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung bandied about terms regarding what they thought made up a Personality, namely, what is the process of Human Personality Development. This is all very obscure stuff to measure, of course (being Psychology), but after 20-30 years of dealing with a vast array of Psychological traumatized patients, and finding patterns, some these two mavericks had a great base of experience to draw from. Even more fascinating, they both made detailed records of their dreams, and analysed the symbols therein (leading to some of Jung's most provocative work on Archetypes). What arose, in one form or another, was a theory of development whereby the Human Personality is said to split into the Persona, and the Shadow. Basically, the whole 'Self' (you and everything about your personality) is split into the Good part (the Persona) and the Bad part (the Shadow).

Before I get attacked for using such childish language here, the "Good" part is not necessarily good; its only good because Society says it's acceptable and polite. The Bad is not necessarily bad at all, except that Society says it's inappropriate or unsuitable for public display. (As you can imagine, this means Shadow and Persona traits likely vary from country to country, and change over time, as society's norms change).

Remember when you were in primary school, and a teacher told you not to speak out or make jokes in class. Maybe you liked to ask very interesting or unique questions in class, and the teacher told you to be a good boy/girl, and only ask 'good' questions. Maybe you told your parents you wanted to learn the electric guitar, and they said you couldn't because they didn't want you to hang out with a 'bad crowd.' When we are very young, we are free of hindrances, brashly expressing ourselves, like little Emperors and Empresses.

"I'm hungry!" "I'm bored!"  "I want candy!"  "I'm not sleepy, I wanna stay up!"

Society eventually nudges us in the "right" direction, by telling us what we should and shouldn't do. This is why we need a Shadow. We need a place to put all those 'bad' character traits.

In terms of Personality development, as soon as we learn certain things are 'bad' and certain things are 'good', we subconsciously remove certain elements of our personalities from 'public display.' That is, we take certain parts of our personality and put them into the 'Shadow.' All the things which society says are 'acceptable' become the Persona. The result? Most of us are civilized men and women, following the rules, waiting for the right traffic light to go, and waiting for the right signal to approach and talk to our fellow man, never acting on impulse, always subconsciously calculating to do the 'right' and most 'polite' thing. Subconscious is the key here. To stay sane, and stay congruently in Society, the Persona must act as if the Shadow doesn't exist.

As it turns out, if we are very 'good' people, much of our 'life energy' is trapped in the Shadow. We are essentially living half of our true personality, and putting half our personality, half our impulses and half our desires, in a prison of sorts.

Sometimes, in the midst of a trauma, a crisis, or an emotional breakdown, the Shadow will 'break out of Jail' and let itself be known. Also, if we ignore it long enough,  eventually it will burst onto the scene, with all its wild impulses and outrageous ideas. After all, if we follow the 'Persona' all our lives, and don't feel happy or fulfilled or loved, eventually the Shadow's nagging whispers will start to make sense! Perhaps not surprisingly, in addition to life energy, much creative energy is locked up in the shadow. After all, whats could be more boring, than a movie, TV show, or song spawned from dozens of intermingling 'acceptable' and Politically Correct traits and feelings.

'Meeting the Shadow' not only outlines much of Carl Jung's ideas (which did differ greatly from Freud, by the way) on the Shadow, it also outlines potential strategies for bringing the Shadow to the for (hence the title). The goal is not to become crazy. The goal is not to go on a wild killing spree. Locked up in the Shadow are very good traits, the problem is Society has given broad generalisations to young impressionable Children who then took it to the extreme.

"Don't Yell"
"Boys don't cry"
"Girls don't talk like that"
"Always wait your turn"
"Be nice to people older than you"

These may be good guidelines for young people, but as rules to live by they are ludicrous. Never Yell? Ever? Is it also a bad thing to get mad? Is it a Sin to ask for something, like food, or attention, or love? Also, if an older person is abusive to you (physically, emotionally, etc) should you let them??

As you can see, as we get older, we absolutely must examine the 'over-simplistic' beliefs  and rules we had as a child. If the Shadow goes ignored, it results in lifeless slugs, dead on the inside, from lack of expression, slaves to their childhood masters. Not only are they unattractive to the opposite sex, they are unattractive employees, and unattractive friends. Those who do not reconnect with the Shadow, ultimately become Zombies, constantly in fear of 'crossing the line' and occasionally snapping in a burst of 'Shadow' fury.

I know what you're thinking. Yes, sometimes these 'bursts' where the Shadow demands to be heard can be dangerous and shocking. It would not be surprising to hear that a normally quiet and subdued man woke up one day, mad at the world, mad that he's done everything 'right' and is still sad, lonely, and wretchedly poor, and suddenly gave into all of his Shadow instincts at once, possible attacking or hurting people in his apartment building or office.

Another fascinating consequence (according to Jung's work) of having an overly 'heavy' Shadow, is that we project those 'bad' traits onto other people. After all, if I'm such a good boy, then the only source of 'rude' and 'selfish' behavior in the world, must be other people, preferably people of my same gender, but from another country, or social class. It's incredibly common to hear ourselves or others make comments like "Everyone from [City X] is a jerk" or "I don't know, I just think people who [play badminton, drink espresso, write blogs] are the scum of the earth," and when we hear that, its the Persona bashing the Shadow. The Persona is saying, I don't like these traits so I've projected them onto people who play badminton, or work on Wall Street. Yes, this has dozens of implications for not only Racism, but also Wars. We have a situation in the US right now where Mexicans are being characterized by some as 'unfairly cheating' and 'trying to take our way of life'. Trying to build walls (or in Arizona's case, a fence ) to keep the Shadow away, is at once hilarious, and deeply sad.

If you can cut the Shadow down to size, and bring more Shadow traits to the fore, you can cut down on this insane Blogger bashing. Anyway, the goal here is not to go crazy and delve into the most bizarre impulses, but to get back that energy, that's locked up in the Shadow. The relaxed, cool, eccentric man understands and is curious about his dark side, and occasionally expresses it through art, or poetry, and is never afraid to stand up, and 'selfishly' ask the questions he's burning to have answered. Moreover, if his house is robbed, or his is physically threatened, he needs to channel his Shadow energy to protect them, not be the good boy.

A basic understanding of the Persona and Shadow complexes (that's what they are, just ideas, not actually real 'areas' of the brain, etc) helps guide us to understanding the Ego--how we can tame it, and how we can harness it. Perhaps I will write more about this in future.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

"Water: The Epic Strugge for Wealth, Power, and Civilization" by Steven Solomon

Apologies for the 1 month delay in posting. I have been buried in a 500 page tome on the history of the world. Again! But I'm back to the surface, and have much to report.

First of all, my work in Asia is in the Water business, and I considered it a huge advantage to keep myself not only informed but extremely well read on future projections and the latest in water technology, so I decided every now and then, I'd get a 'Water' book. This is my first. And it's a doozy.

You may remember the "Ascent of Money" was effectively the story of money, going back to the ancient times, well Steven Solomon's "Water" is essentially the exact same scope and timeline, but focusing on water. And it's actually worth it for anyone to keep up on this subject, but I would advise against a novice jumping into this book. While the historical accounts (in amazing detail) of the Chinese innovation, the Egyptians, the Babylonians, and eventually, the Steam Engine in Britain, which led to the Industrial Revolution, are amazing,...there's just so much information in here, at times it feels like you're studying for a Final exam. But give the author credit for taking on such an amazing task.

Make no mistake, this is not just a timeline of 'scientific developments'; what Solomon set out to do with this book is draw connections between the development of water technology, as well as the natural waterways/lakes/oceans, and political power. And that's where the real 'Aha' moments come from.

For example, in China, few foreigners (like myself) recognize that the Grand Canal (constructed est. 600AD) which spans from Hangzhou to Shanghai all the way north to Beijing, was actually the start of high volume Chinese communication, transport and trade, and was part of the reason the Chinese were so confident that they didn't need much from outsiders--shutting out foreign contact for hundreds of years thereafter.

In Egypt, the great Nile river, has always been the lifeblood of the country, used for irrigation systems, and eventually power generation (early turbine technology). Amazingly, the transport along the Nile was aided by an incredible bidirectional water flow, which meant traders and merchants could traverse North and South on this amazing highway, with relative ease. They had a very similar system to the Chinese, but naturally.

The point is this, to travel 100 miles by foot was often exhausting and dangerous and tediously slow, while getting on a raft and cruising upriver was much more pleasant in almost every way. This huge efficiency improvement shaped much of the worlds development, even up until the 19th century, when in the United States, investors and governors where pushing for very ambitious Canals for the very same reason. In fact, one of America's great shining moments was the opening of the Panama Canal, a monumental feat of engineering, joining the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans, such that trade routes could now pass straight through to Asia from Europe (and vice-versa), with America collecting the toll on every ship.

But there was a turning point, and it goes back to the very first wooden 'turbines' in China, and Egypt. We, as a species, have always thought of water as free. You look to the Ocean, and all you see is vast horizons of it. It is everywhere, it pours down from the sky, and gushes down from the mountaintops.  The human body is mostly water. So basically this planet, and everything on it, is chock full of water. We've basically treated water as a resource--a commodity of infinite supply--that we can do anything we want with. However, when we started building dams, for Hydroelectric power, we changed something: we started to divert and displace massive volumes of water. It seemed like the Hydroelectric dam would give us everything we ever wanted--free power, using naturally rushing waters to spin huge turbines and store electric power--but it did something else. It changed the environment. We now have incidents in India and China where rivers do not reach the oceans, as they once did. At the same time, our global population is booming, we're expected to hit 9 billion brothers and sisters by 2050. These two elements should have us on the edge of our seats.

And what of the next 40 years until then? More so than Oil ever did, what we are doing now with water will shape future alliances, and wars. Those who have the most resources, and the least population, will be freed of this challenge, and rise to the top in terms of development, power and wealth.

Understand that, unlike Oil, which has been fought over for ages, we cannot live without water. We cannot live without drinking it, and we cannot live without planting crops and irrigating the land. For our cheeseburgers, the farm animals must first be fed and be given plenty of water to drink. These indisputable facts are what is leading to not just power struggles, but wars. Even the most docile and peaceloving nations, without access to drinking water, must negotiate to get it, or must fight for it.

Of course, I'm an optimist so I'll end on a positive note: in developed countries, citizens use about 30 times the amount of water used in developing countries. That's our opportunity. Those in developed countries, in the same way we aspire to give great amounts of money to charities, shall aspire to not only cut down on their own consumption, but donate water/water credits to developing countries. Walking the soft path towards a harmonious existence not only with our brothers and sisters, but also with this planet, is the key to redemption. That's the message. We have 40 years to practice it.

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