Unsolicited Advice for Palin’s “Going Rogue” Tour

November 15, 2009

Sarah Palin wants the option to run for president in 2012.  Seven out of ten Americans think that’s a bad idea. Here’s my advice for starting to win them over on the book tour:

  1. Pivot from past to future relatively quickly.
  2. Voters are craving steady hands and a “buck stops here” approach to leadership. Keep the score settling to a minimum.
  3. Have a strategy for creating jobs.
  4. Explain your resignation in a way that reveals an interest in governing.
  5. Sarah v. The Staffers shouldn’t be a fair fight. The narrative that you got rolled by these slick, chain-smoking Washington types doesn’t position you well to lead a nation.
  6. The best version of you doesn’t take herself very seriously, but takes the fate of the nation seriously. Signal both.
  7. We’re exhausted by anxiety. Tap into our aspirations.
  8. Remind us that you’re the adult and Levi’s the child. Again, that shouldn’t be a fair fight.
  9. Take responsibility for some piece of McCain-Palin. In particular, own your interview missteps. You’re auditioning for Spokesperson-in-Chief.
  10. Your base won’t be the only ones buying tickets to the show. Talk to the rest of us, too, for at least part of the time.
  11. Wear incredible shoes (see #7).

Unsolicited Advice for Obama’s Gay Speech

October 6, 2009
The President is delivering the keynote address for the Human Rights Campaign’s annual Washington dinner. The context includes frustration in the gay community for his mixed signals on reforming policies such as Don’t Ask Don’t Tell and the Defense of Marriage Act. He and his team have also surprised observers by their lack of demonstrated grace on the issue of gay rights.  My suggestions for getting it right Saturday night:
  1. Assume a high sensitivity to trivializing the issues. Keep it sober, earnest, honest, direct.
  2. We don’t believe you when you say you’re outsourcing this one to the Bible.
  3. Gays in the military is not a hypothetical issue. Gay soldiers are now serving and dying for America. You are their Commander-in-Chief.
  4. This is about identity, not lifestyle or sex. Convince yourself of that before you take the podium.
  5. Serious scholars think your political hero was probably a homosexual.
  6. There are dangers to over-learning the lessons of the Clinton administration (see over-correction on healthcare strategy). The don’t-waste-your-political-capital advice is obsolete.
  7. Not to alarm you, but the crazy thing about us is that we’re everywhere and nowhere. We’re safely in that “other” camp, and then suddenly we’re your colleagues and your spouses and your children. Just ask Dick.
  8. Tell it to us straight, if you will. We’re very good at separating posture from truth. It’s one of the closet’s many gifts.
  9. Courage and caution can’t coexist for long.
  10. Lose the Blackberry holster. A fashion don’t.
  11. Bring Michelle.
  12. Man up.

The Accidental Entrepreneur

August 23, 2009

The NYT recently published an article describing the growing phenomenon of job seekers giving up on traditional employment and deciding to start their own businesses.  Here’s my advice to these first-time, “accidental” entrepreneurs.

As I often tell my students, spend plenty of time upfront on the logic of the new enterprise.  Step one is to decide whether you’re filling an open gap in the competitive landscape or doing what someone else is already doing in a superior way.  The distinction makes a big difference to step two.

For the open gap strategy, try to understand why the space exists — is it because no one has been as clever as you or because the economics aren’t viable?  Until you’re convinced that it’s the former, don’t move forward.  As a cautionary tale, I often use the example of very high-end daycare, which I’ve written about before.  I’m repeating it here because it really brings the issues to life, and because every year students talk to me about wanting to fill this space.  Their logic is that professional parents would have a very high willingness-to-pay for the exquisite care of their pride and joy.  Their analysis eventually reveals, however, that a service like this costs about the same as a nanny.  And while new parents might, at equal cost, choose daycare over a nanny for the first child, they’re unlikely to do so for the second child, when the cost of daycare doubles, and the cost of that nanny stays the same.

Alternatively, for a beat-someone-at-their-own-game strategy, the task is to build either a better or cheaper mousetrap.  If you want to compete on price, be brutally clear about how your own cost structure is lower than the incumbent’s, both at a small and larger scale.  A risk here is not counting your own labor as cost, even if you won’t draw a salary in the beginning.  While that may be viable at a small scale, at some point, someone will need to be paid for their work, and it’s important to understand these costs in the design phase.

I have seen lots of ventures fail because the founders’ labor was not incorporated into the cost structure since it would be “made up for” in equity.  It’s OK to not take a salary as the founder, but it’s unwise to exclude your labor from the economic logic of the enterprise.  Only after you can perform at a lower cost — inclusive of labor — do you have a scalable idea.

If you’re competing on non-cost dimensions, first figure out how to reliably deliver higher performance.  If you can do it faster, make sure you reliably have control over the speed bumps.  If you can deliver higher quality, make sure you have reliable access to higher quality inputs.  If you’ve figured out how to perform better with the same cost structure as the incumbents, then you’re well on your way.  But if you’re better as a result of higher costs, you also have to determine whether customers really are willing to pay you more.  There are other ways to fund premium inputs, but this is the most common.  As with the daycare service, designing better quality is often relatively straightforward, but driving up customers’ willingness to pay is rarely simple.

I resist peddling guarantees, but I do promise that if you wrestle with these questions in the conceptual phase of your new business, then you’ll increase your probability of success.  By the time your venture launches, I guarantee that it will feel much less accidental.

Unsolicited Advice for Michelle’s New Chief of Staff

June 7, 2009


  1. Congratulations.  Figuring out how to spend her political capital sounds like the greatest job in the world right now.
  2. Approval is not the same thing as impact.
  3. Don’t hide the arms. They’re the reason I still make it to the gym periodically, and I think I speak for millions.    
  4. Challenge the assumptions behind the substance v. style debate. We can handle the complexity of both. 
  5. Her comfort in her own skin inspires us. 
  6. Community service is a worthy priority. But service need not be limited to our national borders, and community need not be defined locally. Our fate will be determined by the health of our global neighborhood. 
  7. Resist learning too many lessons from Hillary’s political missteps in the East Wing.  Michelle is a different woman, and this is a different moment.
  8. Never forget that she helped to close the deal.  
  9. Consider infiltrating the Presidential Gifts Committee. 
  10. Most of us want to live in a world where she is fully unleashed.

Unsolicited Advice for Bobby Jindal: UPDATE

March 1, 2009

11. Ok, you may not actually recover from the part where you may have looked the American public in the eye and lied about the details of your anti-government heroics. This interpretation is now part of the public discussion. If it’s wrong, you must clean it up quickly. 

12. We tend to forgive public figures who manipulate the truth to cover up weakness (see Clinton v. Impeachment) and lose our minds at the first hint of exaggerated strength (see Mainstream Media v. Al Gore for President).  

Unsolicited Advice for Bobby Jindal

February 26, 2009


1. There is such a thing as bad press.

2. You will recover from it.

3. Your competition for 2012 is not Governor Palin, as delighted as Democrats are by the prospect. You’re now competing against the version of you we just met, the party hack with bad advisers and worse comic timing.

4. Americans can handle the complexity of your thinking. We can handle the scary part of “scary smart.” Risk it.

5. Your intellectual curiosity is an enormous public asset. Come out as the Brown University-attending-Rhodes-scholarship-receiving-McKinsey consultant that you are.

6. A great gift to the nation would be a serious fight over who gets to be the “Party of Ideas.” You could lead that fight.

7. The country watched in horror as public incompetence destroyed communities and lives across the Gulf Coast. The mainstream media has moved on, but the rest of us are still paying attention to what happens next. Your career depends on getting it right.

8. Earnest, we like earnest, but you need to calibrate it slightly. More Eagle Scout, less kindergarten teacher.

9. You’re right to wonder about all the boas and wigs around you this month. They’re not all being worn by imports from West Hollywood — you’re representing a lot more queer, tax-paying Louisianans than you may realize. Consider the wacky idea of granting them full citizenship.

10. Natural disasters – even the volcanic variety — are never a good punch line.

Unsolicited Advice for a Congressional Tongue-Lashing

February 11, 2009

The bankers will be scolded today. The theater of it all will be familiar and ridiculous. The lawmakers will climb up onto the stage, tap the full depths of their moral authority and deliver judgment as the cameras roll. It will remind us of similar performances with auto executives and baseball managers – and the current news cycle, which still has A-Rod by the scruff of the neck, will remind us that oversight without teeth is a very possible outcome.

As a taxpayer, the whole thing makes me tired. I’m numb to the show. I don’t want to know which plane, train or automobile delivered these guys to the gallows. I don’t want to hear the carefully scripted claims of disbelief that investment bankers were motivated by profit. I feel like Mary J. Blige, ready for a life of “No More Drama.”

I’m craving a technical solution, not a public hanging, as gross as some of the behavior may have been. There’s certainly enough blame to go around the hearing room for creating a system that made this moment possible.

I just have one piece of advice, and it goes for everyone in the room today – channel the Pottery Barn, a company that’s inspired public leaders in the past, despite its crass interest in wealth creation. You broke it. You own it. Fight the temptation to strut and fret and focus on putting it back together again.