Happy Team Day

May 10, 2009


A truth about the human experience is that the needs that mothers strive to fill – our need for unqualified support, for people who can handle both our audacity and insecurity, for people who believe in the possibility of our triumph, despite the sometimes overwhelming odds against it – these needs are serviced by an army of individuals who may or may not be mothers. In our own work, we call them “the team.” The team plays a vital role in the decision to lead by seeing and celebrating an individual’s potential for impact.

Your own team may include your mother, but not everyone has or chooses that option. The good news is that the mothering you need may come from a range of other magnificent people.

I’m acutely aware of this phenomenon in my own son’s life. I like to think I am meeting some of his needs, but I know I can’t meet all of them, and that percentage will drop as he gets older. I’m pretty good at picking him up when he falls right now, but my instinct to stalk the first girl (or boy) that breaks his heart may be less helpful.

I’m increasingly grateful to the extended village that’s raising him with me. Only some of the villagers have any official claim on the word mother, but I’d still like to take this day to celebrate them. Today I want to thank my son’s team for loving him unconditionally and for believing fiercely in the man he will someday become. It makes me think that “Mothering Day” may be a better word for the holiday. Or to keep it simple, Happy Team Day.

Shameless Self-Promotion: In the River They Swim

May 8, 2009

A piece I wrote on entrepreneurship is included in a collection of essays on development work called In the River They Swim.  The book captures a wide range of voices, from President Paul Kagame of Rwanda to Marcela Escobari of Harvard’s Center for International Development to Michael Fairbanks of the Seven Fund, an innovative new force in finding enterprise solutions to poverty. I have no financial interest in you reading the book, but I am deeply curious about how the collection will resonate, particularly outside of the development field. Please consider taking a look, and please let me know what you think, good or bad. 

An excerpt from my contribution:

I surveyed the audience and tried to reconcile these thoughts in my now thirty-something soul. Their faces revealed a mix of defiance and optimism, and it put me in touch with what I really wanted to say to the people I met who cared so much about their countries’ futures, with the fundamental truth that had pulled me off a mountain in Ecuador more than a decade ago.  Systems such as families and markets and economies are powerful, and we should work to make them better, but they are not all-powerful. Individuals also have tremendous power, much more than we choose to realize. As entrepreneurs in poor countries teach us, we can transcend the systems that seek to contain us. Unleashing that capacity will be the real precondition of the development dream. 

Customer-Operators: Not Paying Them Doesn’t Mean They’re Free

May 6, 2009

People, it turns out, are desperate to be helpful.  Verizon has discovered this and joined the growing ranks of companies using what I call “customer-operators” to do the work employees used to do, everything from generating new product ideas to servicing other customers when those product ideas fail. Betting on the hope that all these customer-operators need in return are the intrinsic rewards of serving others and the status associated with becoming experts, Verizon is primarily making a cost play by inviting customers to perform routine customer service functions. The company has stumbled on some additional perks of engaging these “super-users,” like their knack for good improvement ideas, but this value is seen as peripheral.

At this point in the experiment, Verizon only sees the upside in recruiting and deploying an army of customer-operators. Before the company doubles down, I want to offer two points of caution:

First, customers are different from employees in ways that matter operationally. In general, they’re more difficult to manage, measure, recruit and fire.  Just because you don’t pay them, doesn’t mean they’re free. The price may be worth it to achieve radically higher levels of quality (Wikipedia) or a radically lower cost structure (eBay), but the tradeoffs aren’t as clear for traditional business models.

New management systems must be designed and maintained once you bring customers into your operations. And the effort may require more than a few “feedback stars” to measure and maintain quality. Reputation is a powerful incentive for good behavior, but it’s not all-powerful (see John Edwards). Have a plan for when the customer you’re relying on to provide good service doesn’t respond to another customer’s inquiry for days.

Second, those feel-good emotions of service and status may not be enough to compensate your most active (and valuable) customer-operators as time goes on. A lesson from many organizations is that when you ask customers to donate their labor, they often feel entitled to a seat at the decision-making table. Back to those feedback stars, I spent some time on the outrage of eBay customers when the color of their own stars was changed in an HBR case. Outrage may be too weak a word. There was an electronic revolt.

I’m with Verizon. I think customer involvement is a tremendous opportunity for many businesses. But I want to add a few caveats — customer-operators aren’t always easy to manage, and they aren’t always willing to stop at the operational boundaries you propose.  You may invite them on to the shop floor, but some of them are taking the elevator up to the C-suite.  Have a plan for what happens next.

Richard Anderson’s Guide to Tactical Leadership

May 2, 2009

We spend a lot of time here defining and illustrating leadership – less on the very tangible application of it. One thing I liked about the Anderson interview is that he offers some tactical advice. As a public service, I will summarize it here:

1. Never lose your temper.

2. Thank employees and customers in writing. He suggests hand-written notes, writes half a dozen a day.

3. Use interviews to surface the intangibles like ability to adapt to change. I found this one less persuasive, at least his operational advice:

I learned that from a C.E.O. I worked for. The C.E.O. wouldn’t really spend that much time on the résumé, but spent most of the time wanting to know everything about the person’s life, family, what they liked, where they liked to go on vacation, what their kids were like. And it gave you a really good perspective about who they were as people.

The social scientists have revealed our relatively strong bias for people who are like us. For example, it would take superhuman discipline for me not to hire someone on the spot who told me that his ideal vacation was hiding in a dark, climate-controlled hotel room with no sounds of children or pets. If someone who’d be a good poolside companion for you is also the best person for the job, bonus. In my experience, it rarely works out that way. “Cultural fit” can be an insidious way to ensure homogeneity of thinking and action, an increasingly reliable path to mediocrity.

4. Just say no to powerpoint. Make people communicate with subjects, verbs and objects.

5. And, finally, my favorite advice, quoted in full. If nothing else, this man can run a meeting:

Q. How do you run meetings?

A. One, get the materials out ahead of time and make sure they are succinct and to the point. Second, start the meeting on time. Third, I tend to be a stoic going into the meeting. I want the debate. I want to hear everybody’s perspective, so you want to try to ask more questions than make statements. I don’t think it’s appropriate to use BlackBerrys in meetings. You might as well have the newspaper and open the newspaper up in the middle of the meeting. So let’s stay focused on what we’re doing. Let’s have a really good debate, but it can’t get uncollegial. If it gets uncollegial, we actually have a bell you can ring, in the conference room.

Q. Tell me more about this.

A. If you are in a really hard debate and somebody veers off the subject and goes after you in a way that isn’t fair, you get to ring the bell. It’s a violation of the rules of the road. So you ring the bell if something wasn’t a fair shot, and we all laugh.