How That Vicious Inner Critic Can Be Your Closest Ally

TMT1There’s something about optimism. Nothing in business is quite as powerful in motivating people to believe in a mission as a leader who undoubtedly believes. The energy that radiates from a passionate entrepreneur is engaging, uplifting, and inspiring. When we hear someone tell us he or she is following their muse, boldly pursuing a personal dream, we want to root for them. We want to become a part of it. We want to hitch our cart to their wagon. We want to step out of the ordinary and get onboard the outrageous.

A leader who won’t be deterred can bring purpose to a business enterprise.

A leader who rises above petty criticism and backstabbing naysayers can turn a hundred dollars into a hundred million dollars.

A leader who is “all-in” and won’t be dissuaded from a cohesive, organic vision can literally change the world.

Over and over we hear the speechifying that tells us never to give up, that resilience is all that matters, that we should forget the critics and ignore the naysayers.

Already doing that? Great. But there’s a catch.

Walt Disney was told he was no good as an illustrator, that his characters would never be popular. Steve Jobs got fired from his own company for being difficult, and refusing to compromise his ambitions. They were never dissuaded. They were resilient and persevered. They could not have cared less what their critics were saying.

Walt and Steve are held up as classic examples of rejecting rejection. They maintained an uncompromised vision and carved their place in history because of it. Detractors who called out “their folly” could do them no sustained harm. Walt and Steve evidenced a form of courage that set a new high water mark for leading teams beyond the fog to unbridled innovation. They remain heroes to those who aspire to transcend the ordinary.

So what’s the catch? You want to be That Leader, right? Or maybe you just want to sign on with That Leader? What’s the missing element that is most likely to take you down?

Is it that the odds against a startup succeeding are enormous?

Nope. Most entrepreneurs know this long before they quit their day jobs. Many are wacky, but few are stupid.

Is it that capital is very hard to raise, especially for a first time entrepreneur?

Nope. Most entrepreneurs discover this lesson the first time mom or dad says, “What!? Are you kidding me? You’re not a CEO… you can barely manage to get matching socks on your feet!” They secretly know that mom and dad are just negotiating their share of the deal for the seed round.

Is it that it’s nearly impossible to get super-talented people to work for deferred or limited pay for the long runway until a business is cash flow positive?

Nope. Most entrepreneurs are confident that if they articulate an exciting enough plan, the right people will get with the program no matter what, and the ones who said no just saved the entrepreneur the pain of having to fire them later for their mediocrity.

Then what is it? What is the Achilles Heel of the resilient? What is the repelling force that stands counter to the success of leaders brave enough to shake off a world that tells them No No No when all they hear in their heads is Yes Yes Yes?

Presume for a moment this entrepreneur is You. Get your highlighter ready. You’ll want to make note of this for the rest of your career.

The problem might be YOU.

Don’t highlight that. I haven’t gotten to the important part yet. The part you need to highlight is this:

If you’re not going to listen to the critics who will tell you every reason in the world why you are going to fail—and believe you absolutely must tune them out in order to be a renowned, world-class leader—you are going to have to be the hardest critic in the world on yourself.

Yes, in order to earn the privilege of ducking all the pessimists trying to steer you away from your dream, you must beat yourself up in ways they can’t even imagine. There is no luxury in resilience. There is only a level of self-critique so necessary that the pain it will cause you as a lone wolf makes child’s play of the third-party negativity you will never hear. What you hear in your head must be far more thundering—and far more impactful.

The real reason most startup leaders fail

It’s not because of a lack of devotion, or a lack of passion, or even because of a lack of talent.

They fail because of a lack of self-critique.

Does this apply to you? Have you actually established yourself as your own toughest critic? I don’t mean a little tough. I mean vicious, brutal, send yourself into a tailspin tough. Sorry to break the news, but that’s why Walt and Steve were often perceived as miserable. They were always very, very tough on themselves, an order of magnitude more thrashing than what any bleacher critic was or even could have been.

I have had the privilege to lead a handful of creative companies and I have had the privilege to be a published author. In all cases I was told innumerable times why I would not be successful. I didn’t hear a word of it. I didn’t need to hear a word of it. In all cases I was already way ahead of the peanut gallery, working and reworking the scenarios of why I wouldn’t be successful.

I study product features like I study word choices. I might tell you that no one on the market has anything like this, but before you’ll hear me utter those words, I have done the homework to assure myself this is worth defending. No one else can do that as stridently as I can. I say “no” to a sentence a hundred times before I let you see it. I edit it, erase it, rewrite it, rework it, change it, question it, then pick it apart word by word until I have exhausted all its failures. Same with a product. Same with a service.

I can only ignore the amateur naysayers because I am my own best professional naysayer.

Let’s take it deeper, to a place you may not want to go. Here’s another reason why startup leaders fail: they doggedly champion a product that is no good. It’s not because the naysayers are right. It’s because the startup leader doesn’t embrace the radical discipline to relentlessly question themselves and, by extension, their product.

If running out of time and money don’t apply as explanations, most entrepreneurs fail for a very simple reason: their idea was not good enough to create a category defining product or service. Too often we dupe ourselves into believing the ordinary is extraordinary. We fall in love with an idea because we gave birth to it, and rather than beating that idea into something exceptional—or dumping it, learning from it, and finding the fortitude to reinvent it into something else—we tell ourselves we will not be dissuaded and we go to market with mediocrity. That’s when we get walloped.

Once again, the tough love, get out the highlighter:

The only way you can defy the odds and ignore the critics is if you have a massive built-in crap filter. If you don’t want someone else to tell you your product is crap, you better be willing to tell yourself it’s crap or you’re going to blow a lot of time and money on nothing.

Artists and inventors have a crap filter no matter how successful they are. Walt did. So did Steve. Walt was told that audiences would never want to see a feature-length animated motion picture. He didn’t hear it, because Snow White and the Seven Dwarves was already worked out in his head, after he had rejected every possible way to make it something people would never want to see.

Steve was told there would never be a market for something as intimidating as home computing. He didn’t hear it, because the Apple II was already worked out in his head, after he had rejected every possible way that it would intimidate people.

Both of these visionaries agonized over perfection and were never satisfied. When they were starting out they were never satisfied. When they were at the bottom they were never satisfied. When they were at the top of their game they were never satisfied. The critics failed to resonate with them because they were lightweights in comparison to their own pounding criticism.

Are you embracing this burden of innovation?

Why do I need you to hear this? Why is this so desperately important to everyone who wants to make a difference and change the world? Because too many hopeful leaders are embracing the rhetoric of “going their own way” without embracing this burden of innovation. Every single day someone shows me a derivative app and begs me to believe in them. It’s a minimum viable product, they tell me, they will build on it and make it great later.

Right, after customers have yawned.

You really think they’ll give you another chance? So yours is 12% faster than your competition? So what? So yours addresses a tiny niche with a quirky set of differentiating features that matter mostly to you for pitching on demo day… So what? Get your eyes off the IPO listings and back on the shelf where the war for customers is lost or won. Don’t be Happy. Be Grumpy.

Incrementality is toxic. Don’t tell me how all your competitors have slightly weaker products than what you’re proposing. Convince yourself you can blow my mind with something that leapfrogs the entire market if not in one product cycle then over a generation. If you don’t want me to tell you that your app is crap then be sure you’ve asked yourself a hundred times before you ignore me. If you don’t know that your app is crap because you aren’t being honest with yourself then you haven’t earned the right to ignore the naysayers.

That’s the secret sauce—knowing when you are ready to play and when the cards you hold are not worth playing. Be that critic and you’ll never need another. When you stand up onstage and tell your story of success, it will undoubtedly be preceded by the chapters of failure that led you to your day in the sun. I want to come to that speech and applaud. I want to see you do it again and again. I want to see you tell the naysayers to jump off a peer.

Are you ready to take on the responsibility of being your own toughest critic? Wield your inner critic in such a way that it allows you to do the best work of your life. Then yeah, tell us all to bugger off and let’s get to work changing the world.

_____

This article originally appeared on The Modern Team.

Photo Image: Courtesy of Exclusive Collections Gallery (Fabio Napoleoni)

Another Good Year for The Good Men Project

CallForBloggersI have just finished my third full year on the board of directors and as strategic advisor to The Good Men Project. It’s hard to believe that much time went by so quickly. On the other hand, it is amazing to see how far we have come in such a short amount of time. Every day we publish no fewer than thirty new stories, and every day we learn something about ourselves and each other. It truly is a remarkable journey. If you haven’t joined us yet, please stop by the site for a read. I’m pretty convinced one visit will not be enough. Like the three to five million people we reach each month, you’ll be back.

If you’re not yet familiar with The Good Men Project, we are an editorial site that focuses on men’s issues in the 21st Century. We call our electronic publication, “The Conversation No One Else Is Having.” What sets us apart and makes us unique is that we are a site with the word “Men” in the title above the masthead, while only half our audience is male. Likewise, we are a site where half our writers are women. In the many comments that follow our stories, men and women discuss difficult issues about marriage, parenting, work-life balance, career stress, family stress, health, sex, romance, relationships, dating, splitting up, advice, confessions, sports, ethics, faith, discrimination in all its forms, justice, growing old, staying young, entertainment, the arts, and pretty much any other human issue you can imagine. We demand high quality writing, respectful commentary, and a firm commitment to dig a little deeper emotionally than you otherwise might expect in high volume editorial. Beyond that, we are an experiment in progress, and we welcome the creativity of every voice that joins us.

This past year has been particularly exciting for us, because our endlessly devoted CEO, Lisa Hickey, relocated to the west coast and set up shop in Pasadena, California. We are now in a fabulous shared workspace environment where any of our writers or editors can stop by and have a cup of coffee with Lisa. Our team of three executive editors, over thirty section editors, and more than 2000 regular contributors around the globe generate topical as well as perennial stories with precision teamwork. We have almost 500,000 Facebook fans, up from about 60,000 the last time I summarized our business for you in early 2014. Something is definitely going right at The Good Men Project. I get the sense you are all heavily into this conversation. Don’t worry, we’re still just getting started.

One of our editors recently asked me in a comment string on another site what I thought was working well at The Good Men Project, and what could be learned and applied to other endeavors similar in aspiration. Well, the number one thing that’s working here is the people — the readers, the writers, the commentors, the staff — all of you are what make this thing matter. Beyond that, I offered three themes that Lisa and I pledged way back would be core to our focus and that we try very hard to make real. Here is what I wrote:

1) Our platform is meant to be a dialogue, not a diatribe. The brand does not define what being a good man is, it poses that question to the community to sensibly discuss in a conversation that never ends. We don’t name a good man of the year, because if we did, the chances he would be unveiled as flawed a minute after we did are 99%. We discuss goodness, we don’t cement a model of good.

2) Diversity to us is air. Because good is so hard to understand, we see the whole of our contribution base as vastly more important than one dominating voice. We are The Good MEN project with half our writers women and half our readers women, so men and women can discuss important things with each other, not at each other. Ethnicity, sexual orientation, age, we cast the widest net we can, so we can learn from each other.

3) We demand good behavior without imposing political correctness. You can disagree with a point of view, but you can’t attack a contributor. We encourage articulate contribution over invective. Again, it’s meant to be a conversation, which means there are rules of civility, but not so many that they curtail free exchange of voice.

Lisa and I spend a lot of time thinking about our brand, the promise we make to all of you and to each other, and my sense is if we are true to these three core values, we will keep growing on a steady trajectory. Like I also say, because we tread on creatively dangerous terrain, it is inevitable that we will step in poo now in again. When we do, we go back to our values, and that’s how we hope to get unstuck.

In the coming year you will see some forward strides at The Good Men Project, where we are now investing the limited but stable financial resources we can forecast.

First, you are going to see a much-needed and long overdue redesign that prioritizes mobile in a way we haven’t before. We know you tolerate our templates with “pinch to expand” dexterity, and that’s not fair in a world gone mobile. Both a responsive site and an app are on the way. Both a responsive site and an app are on the way.

Second, we will be expanding our sponsorship model, where we work with relevant brands to produce content that helps tell their stories in ways that align with our values, but also lets us grow our business. We have always been careful about this, but we have also become quite good at it. When our phone rings with a great sponsorship opportunity, we want to connect the right writer with that message. That writer could be you!

Third, you will see more emphasis on our premium product, where we ask a modest annual membership fee to help support our efforts in a world where advertising can not be our only business model. By the way, if you write for us, you are entitled to a free bronze level subscription badge, so if you don’t have it, email lisa@goodmenproject.com and she will set you up.

Finally, we are going to be experimenting more with video, and we will have some production days in our office for pilot shorts we want to test. If you have ideas or original videos you want to share, don’t be a stranger.

We also plan to increase our coverage of the Presidential Election with unique perspectives on the meaning of campaign verbiage. We will continue to collect far-ranging points of view on movie favorites both current and classic. We will also stay on top of breaking news stories and events, not so much with added mainstream reporting, but with analysis and interpretation of the implications and underlying meaning in mainstream reporting. All in all, we have quite an ambitious agenda, as you would expect of us.

I personally want to thank you for embracing The Good Men Project, where I am not only a business guy, I am a regular contributor. Not surprisingly, I write mostly about business, where I try to focus on the human side of creativity, innovation, overcoming obstacles, and taking on big challenges. It is a joy to share my words with you, and it is a joy to share this space with you. Keep the good words coming, keep us honest and on our toes, and we promise to continue The Conversation No One Else Is Having.

_____

This article originally appeared on The Good Men Project.

Photo Image: Courtesy of Good Men Media, Inc.

Three Arguments Against Performance Reviews

sb-2015-blog-top-10I don’t like performance reviews. I never liked giving them, and I never liked getting them. They are like school report cards, only less well-meaning and more poorly formed. They make the workplace more political, needlessly enforcing nerve-wracking centers of power. They serve a legal function much more than a creative function. They don’t make products better and they don’t serve customer needs. They are obligatory, perfunctory, dreaded time sucks for both giver and receiver, putting a check mark in an annual rite of passage that is largely ignored until the Earth completes another full orbit around the Sun.

On the other hand, I love feedback—really good, thoughtful, useful, timely, focused feedback. I love to give it and I love to get it as part of a regular routine.  No check boxes, no check marks. Feedback, sometimes known as coaching, requires relevant substance to have impact. It needs to center on step by step improvement in how an individual is doing against goals, how a team is advancing by virtue of an individual’s progress, how innovation is being served by attitudes and decisions on a daily basis, and how an individual’s achievements are translated into outcomes valued by an employer.

I don’t believe anyone can effectively coach, empower, and bolster an individual’s workplace contributions sitting down once a year and filtering a list of positive and negative attributes. The best you can hope for is polite-speak that doesn’t upset anyone too much—unless you are marching someone to the door—and the worst you can muster is demoralization that shuts down all future hope of trust and collaboration.

Here are three thumbnail cases against performance reviews that you should find terrifying.

Argument 1: Performance reviews can put off for up to a year what needs attention now

Performance reviews can be a passive-aggressive haven for managers afraid to lead in the present. You know something wrong is happening, and you know it’s going to be uncomfortable to deal with it. Rather than do the right thing and jump on a concern in real-time, you kick the can, deluding yourself into believing there is a chance the issue will sort itself out. While it’s not sorting itself out, considerable damage is being done. You tell yourself if the individual doing wrong doesn’t figure it out by the next performance review cycle, you will deal with it then. This is pain avoidance up the ladder at the cost of pain induction everywhere else. It’s not leadership. It’s cowardice.

Instead of keeping notes for the big annual summation of all that has gone wrong, how about a simple human conversation today around what is and isn’t working for an employee. Start with an easy question: “How are things going?” If you don’t like the answer, offer your own opinion. Start a dialogue. Make it specific, give-and-take, and optimistic in nature. Do not catalog a set of ills. Begin with previously discussed goals and work forward from those to observations and measurements. Instead of feeling evaluated, an employee is likely to feel directed, supported, and knowledgeable about where he or she stands.

There is no greater fear in an employee than worrying about what the boss thinks. There is no confidence greater than knowing the truth of that opinion right now, while there is still time to do something about it.

Argument 2: Performance reviews are largely clueless  on the value of failure

Imagine this scenario: You are an executive with significant profit and loss responsibility. One of your most promising managers has just led a two-year late-to-market death march on a brand extension that has launched and failed. The team that worked on this product is angry and exhausted. Boatloads of resources, including millions of dollars of investment capital, have gone up in smoke. You have lost market share, customer service complaints are up, and your own boss is pissed off.

In most corporations, you can guess the review would be harsh. There would have to be accountability for the downside, the losses, the ceding of momentum. In the event you chose not to put the manager on a “performance improvement plan” (which both you and the employee know is a scripted formality), the mandated gravitas of your critique might get you the intended outcome—the employee’s resignation. If the employee doesn’t resign, what are the real chances he or she will bounce back and give their all on the next go around? Aren’t they more likely to tread water until they find a way to navigate to a new job elsewhere?

Here’s the problem with this exit: Your employee takes all the learning from the failure directly to your competitor. You have funded the education of your competition and put yourself further behind the curve by virtue of the reprimand. You got what you wanted, except you didn’t. A performance review codifies failure “for the record” as historical documentation of the negative case, and even where it might allude to the notion that learning has occurred, there’s something about those pieces of paper in our “permanent file” that never sits quite right with us. Talk with me as colleague, make me believe you embrace “mi fracaso es su fracaso,” and together we’ll put this learning to work. Mold my upside down experiment into a tombstone and you can forever bury me and all that might someday come of it.

Argument 3: Performance reviews require a level of mentoring expertise few managers ever master

It’s really hard to explain to someone how they can learn from mistakes and get better at what they do. I’m not saying it’s a little hard. It is one of the hardest things any of us are ever asked to do in a job function. Each time we blow it, we never get a chance to repair the enormous damage we create on top of whatever relatively minor damage has already been done. A career is a terrible thing to waste, yours or mine. Do you really feel up to the right to objectively assess where I’ve gone off the rails?

We need to be extraordinarily careful where we entrust the authority for talent evaluation in an organization. Too often it’s the battlefield promotion—or drawing the short straw—that puts an inexperienced manager on point for filling out these crazy forms. It’s a mistake to believe you’re ready to handle this delicate task simply because of where you sit on an org chart.

Let’s try that performance review about failure again in the form of higher level feedback rather than evaluation, from someone who has been at it several decades and really wants a winning outcome. The leader entrusted with course correction can ask a single question, and then shut up for about half an hour while listening to the answer: What did you learn from this failure?

If an employee has little or nothing to say in response—if the answer you hear lacks substance or authenticity in addressing what might come next—proceed to complete the performance review. It doesn’t matter what you write on the page. Your competitor is getting nothing but a disingenuous cost center. Lucky you. Yet if you like what you hear, you have the beginnings of a rebound, because all learning is valuable in a comeback. No one knows more than an employee who has failed what went wrong and how to course correct. It’s not about a performance review. It’s about what comes next, and how you get better.

A performance review is a task, feedback is a means

There are a hundred legal reasons your company wants documented performance reviews, every one of them sensible and with precedent. Sadly not one of them has anything to do with innovation. It’s not failure if it’s learning. Not many people ever learn to think this way. Any success subsequent to a failure can pay for the failure ten times over, a hundred times over. Any lost knowledge following a failed initiative is plain old sunk cost.

I write often about employer and employee loyalty and my sense is how employees are evaluated has a lot to do with their predisposition to hanging around for next year’s evaluation. Maybe you shouldn’t wait a year to communicate something that matters so much in a format that makes Human Resources happy. Remember, most employees don’t quit jobs, they quit bosses. The really talented ones who have options are likely to despise performance reviews, but they love talking with someone who cares about what they do and how they can get better.

_____

This article originally appeared on SmartBlog on Leadership.

Photo: SmartBlog on Leadership

Leading Teams Toward Success Using People, Products and Profits

I’ve written the words People, Products, Profits (In That Order!) so many times over the years it would be easy to think of them as simply a slogan I use, a catchphrase meant to pique your interest. I assure you this is no more the case than Apple using the words Think Different as a clever tagline. Like the words Think Different, People-Products-Profits is part management philosophy, part rallying cry, and in an aspirational context, part religion. When I invoke these words to set the table for embarking on the outrageous, it is with the full knowledge that I could sound silly, fail miserably, fall on my face, or possibly convince you that relentless pursuit of the extraordinary is within your grasp. That’s a lot to bite off in a very few words. It’s meant to be.

In my new book, Endless Encores, a veteran CEO named Daphne spends an evening talking with an up-and-coming executive named Paul, helping him come to terms with the potential first failure he could be facing following a huge initial success. They are stuck in an airport, passing the hours. She is a leader and he is leader, only at the moment he is too obsessed with his own personal exposure to realize that he is failing to be a leader by trying to duck out of the way of his own mishap. By worrying more about what he has done than what he has learned, he has shifted the weight of his problem from marginal to endemic. In truth, the failure he might be facing is not so much a setback as it is an opportunity. By the end of the story, he has embraced that and reset his sights on the long game.

Save for the guidance from Daphne, Paul might have missed the boat. And the plane. And all that might have been ahead of him in the form of material reward, passionate accomplishment, intellectual richness, and emotional fulfillment. It’s a close call, but he makes it over the coals. You can, too, if either you have a Daphne in your corner and you’re willing to listen, or if you otherwise come to acknowledge your role as a leader is more about the long-term example you set than the specific offering you at the moment champion. One is permanent and tangible, the other fleeting and beyond your control. Where would you prefer to focus?

Leading through People, Products, and Profits means committing to the idea that talent is a priori to all success. This has much less to do with your own talent than the talent you assemble, empower, and inspire. World class products and services don’t create themselves. They are created by human beings, most often high performance teams, and the time you devote to building and bolstering those teams is a direct reflection of your values.

When your team identifies a product concept that is worth pursuing, leadership becomes the championing of execution over the touting of an idea. We can all dream up big ideas, but few of us can bring them to market. Those who can almost invariably need some form of stewardship to hold the team together through unending punch lists of details. If that’s not challenge enough, you can have the best team in the world and the best product in the world, but if your business model is not sensible and doesn’t sustain the enterprise, it really doesn’t matter what you set out to accomplish. A business has to create value, usually measured in the form of profit, and if you can’t lead a team to do that more often than not, you’re not likely to get many chances to stand in the center ring.

The point of the rallying cry is to set a tone of priority, balance, and perspective. Everyone likely wants a business that is profitable, but leaping straight to the outcome ignores the most valuable element in the mix: your customers. An exceptional team that has been well-directed puts the customer in first position, in essence their supreme boss, with the primary hope that if a customer’s expectations are exceeded, that customer can become a customer for life. When we talk about the notion of lifetime value, we are talking about just that: Have we surprised and delighted a customer in such a way that they ascribe emotion to the brand we represent? Will they come back for more with cost-effective prompting, and will they tell their influence circles about the breadth and depth of their fine experience? That’s why a business leader is accountable first to customers, because they hold all the cards, and that’s why when they pursue a business opportunity, they place investment in talent first, product innovation second, and business model third. You need all three, but put them in the wrong order and you are left extracting value from a customer rather than bonding a customer who becomes a partner in creating value.

Yes, you have to juggle three balls at once in sequence if you want to repeat success, and you have to do it over and over. It’s not easy and it’s not supposed to be easy, because if it were, you wouldn’t be worthy of praise or wealth because anyone could do it. Likewise, leadership is a choice. It’s not for everyone. The rewards are far often more intrinsic than measurable, and falling on your face in a public forum is never going to be fun. You will fail. We all fail. If you learn when you fail you will also win. You have to decide if leadership is really something you’re ready to shoulder. If you are, choose your words and the order of those words carefully. The talent around you will only become cynical if you’re insincere and don’t stand for something more than winning right now.

Repeating success is about the journey. Leading is about tone and substance. Projects are always short. Careers can be short or long. The choice is always yours. Your values always matter. If you’re deliberate in determining how you build a culture of shared values, the best around you will always be listening. Stay authentic and their results will surprise you. Those are likely to be extremely pleasant surprises.

_____

This article originally appeared on Leadership Now.

Photo courtesy of Free Range Stock

TSO in the Front Row

TSO1

Christmas time
And the moment’s just beginning
From last night
When we’d wished upon a star

If our kindness
This day is just pretending
If we pretend long enough
Never giving up
It just might be who we are

  • From “Promises to Keep” by Paul O’Neill & Robert Kinkel

It’s getting late. Or early. Depends on where you are. Music of the Night.

I’m just back from my almost annual two-and-a-half hours with Trans-Siberian Orchestra. It was different this year. For the first time ever my wife and I sat in the front row. I didn’t pay any special price and TSO does not sell VIP packages. We just got lucky ordering the millisecond tickets went on sale to fans. Incredibly lucky. Staggeringly lucky. Not an ordinary occurrence for yours truly.

Last night’s show at Citizens Business Bank Arena in Ontario, California was as good as any and every show we’ve seen TSO perform since we began following them around the turn of the Millennium. The difference was the intensity of, well, being in the front row. I’ve been going to rock concerts like this for over forty years now, and the few times I’ve found my way to the front row, there is nothing like it. When there is nothing between you and the musicians but a wee bit of inner space, you connect. It’s indescribable. It’s metaphysical. It’s what rock and roll is meant to be, the lines between audience and performers erased. You feel the experience in a different way. There is a pure intensity that sinks through your sensory inputs and temporarily commands possession of your emotional framework. Ideas become visceral. Passion becomes tangible. You wish it could last forever. At least I do.

Then reality returns. It has to return, so you can take the music with you and do something with it. Inspiration is a spark, not an engine. If you find a way for the spark to ignite, you carry the torch with a reason and do something with it. Moments like hanging in the front row keep me young, but my work is still my work. Part of that is sharing this stuff with you, to bring us together in the service of something productive, something that matters.

Seconds before the show began, in the dim light of pre-set, music director Al Pitrelli walked to center stage in the shadows. I was about ten feet from him. Pitrelli is a musician of such amazing talent I am humbled watching his fingers navigate the fret board at speeds I can barely imagine, let alone emulate. I looked at Pitrelli and made eye contact. I gave him the aviator’s thumbs up. He looked back at me and put his hand over his heart, a Roman Centurion salute of sorts, but kinder and more heartfelt as he often does when connecting with someone in the audience. In that moment I felt simultaneously like we had just met in person yet were old friends. I guess both of those readings are true. It is the illusion of knowingness that allows art to work. Ancient philosophers worried about the dangers of such false impressions. Old rock and rollers like me call it keeping the backbeat.

I have never met Al Pitrelli, or TSO founder/impresario Paul O’Neill, or anyone in Trans-Siberian Orchestra, despite the fact that they inspired me to write my second book, Endless Encores. I talk about the band in the book’s Preface, how brave they are to try out new material on every tour to keep moving forward, while still giving their fans the show they expect. They just give us more, music we don’t know is coming, and that lets us grow together rather than lock into a fixed expectation of the ordinary. Maybe someday I’ll get to meet these guys—who knows, what were the chances I’d end up in the front row of their show at retail?

What do I really want to share in this predawn realtime post, something I rarely do but at the moment feel compelled to publish unpolished? Is it to convince you that TSO offers a level of practiced musicianship, vibrant stagecraft, theatrical innovation, and storytelling significance that is much too rare in pop entertainment? Possibly. Is it simply to capture the moment for myself of front row showtime as a slice of life? I’d be lying if I told you otherwise. Yet here’s the real deal: Go back to the top of this post and have another look at the lyrics I excerpted.

There is a through line here. It is the holiday season, a time of pause, a time of reflection. In the ultimate irony, the venue where TSO played last night was not too far from San Bernardino, where violent tragedy again struck our nation only days ago. Families all around us are in pain. What we need to embrace is that every kind act in response to those in need is an act that restores humanity to humanity. Music, stories, and unforgettable performances can be our road back to the goodness that gives our life purpose. When art is a conduit that reminds us to act as we internalize, we are brought together toward a path that anticipates healing. We learn from the evocative, and we advance on the hard work that must be done to make sense of our brief time together.

TSO carries into my heart a sense of hope. It ties the holidays to a call of service, and it ties the years together in a continuum of incomplete measure. Sitting in the front row made it feel more real, more direct, more personal, and oh yes, more intense. We have a tremendous amount of work to do together and not much time to have an impact. Listen to the lyrics, feel the music, embrace the integration. Then do something with it.

Celebrate the holidays by doing something that really matters. And don’t forget to turn up the volume. I’ll see you in the front row, the cheap seats, or anywhere else we can make a real difference. Think hope, then make it happen.
TSO6

The Most Terrifying Job Interview Question of All

InterviewWe’ve all been there, on one side of the desk or the other, possibly both. You’re making the turn on the final few minutes of a later stage job interview. You’ve covered background, work history, strengths, interests, team compatibility, maybe even a few unnecessary logic problems tossed in so the interviewer can show you how clever he or she is. You’ve answered the all too predictable homestretch inquiry: Where do you see yourself in five years? You’ve even managed to answer it well, mixing ambition, humility, and a tiny dose of self-effacing humor. And then it comes, that one ugly question you thought surely the interviewer had forgotten to ask, but you knew was loaded deep in the cannon ready to be fired:

What would you consider some of your areas for improvement?

Gasp! There it is, unmistakable in its clarity, a full-blown cliché in its entrance, unforgiving in its existential presence. You must answer. Let’s play it out three ways that could happen and see what might land.

Scenario 1: I’m Okay, You’re a Meddling Schmoe

Interviewer: Are there any areas of personal development you’d like to improve on in your next position?

Applicant: Uh, no, not really.

Interviewer: None at all? Surely there is something you’d like to do better at this job than you demonstrated at another job.

Applicant: No, can’t say there is. Maybe when I was younger there were some issues, but I think I’ve long since put those to bed.

Interviewer: I’m curious, tell me about some of those areas that needed polish when you were younger.

Applicant: To tell you the truth, I can’t much remember. That was a long time ago, before I figured things out.

Buzzer sounds. End of interview. Applicant loses on the counts of defensiveness, dishonestly, being unprepared, and shutting down the conversation. Interviewer also loses, may have eliminated a decent candidate from the queue by being strident and intrusive.

Scenario 2: I’m Not Okay, You Busted Me in Open Court

Interviewer: You really do seem well-qualified and a potentially excellent fit for this position. I was wondering, are there any areas of improvement you want to focus on that we haven’t covered that might be worth discussing?

Applicant: Well, to be honest, I don’t suffer fools all that well. When certain people on a team aren’t on their game, I can he a little harsh in my criticism.

Interviewer: That’s interesting. So by harsh, you try to rally those around you to give their all and make sure the team’s output is always at its best?

Applicant: I wish that were the case. In the spirit of full disclosure, I have to say that when someone is an idiot, there isn’t much anyone on a team can do to get them to perform. The simple truth is, a team needs to weed out its weakest players. I know I’m at the top of my game, so I only want to play with people at the top of their games. You said your company was committed to excellence. We’re fully aligned there. I will do all I can to make excellence happen, but that can get messy, you know?

Interviewer: Right, so what I think I hear you saying is you’d like to focus a little in the coming years on tolerance and more productive ways of motivating your colleagues.

Applicant: Yeah, I’ve tried that, but it doesn’t work. And come on, tolerance? Do you want people who tolerate idiots on your payroll along with the idiots? That’s an expensive proposition.

Buzzer sounds. End of interview. Applicant loses on the counts of self-centered obsession, lack of tact, lack of diplomacy, and potential sociopathic narcissism. Interviewer wins on the count of revelation, transparency, and avoidance of dozens of team sit-downs in search of collegiality.

Scenario 3: I Want to Grow, Together We Can Get to New Heights

Interviewer: I’ve really enjoyed getting to know you today. One question that comes up sometimes in interviews—and I know this can be a little awkward—but are there any growth areas in your career where you might want to advance from good to great in your next position?

Applicant: If you’re asking are there any areas where I can improve, the answer is most certainly yes. How could it be otherwise? Every job we tackle is an opportunity, and part of that opportunity is the chance to get better at what we do. For me, it’s about carving out the time to dissect the prior day’s work before continuing with the next day’s work, no matter how fast things are moving.

Interviewer: Are you saying that in the past you have been too spontaneous, too impulsive around getting more done before you have nailed down the details of what already has been accomplished?

Applicant: That’s an interesting way of phrasing it. I don’t think I have ever thought about it that way. No, that doesn’t really sound like me. But teams in high performance environments tend to feed off each other’s energy, and sometimes the tiniest details that didn’t seem to matter the day before really do open or close doors to the next phase of development. What I’d like to be able to do is take a leadership role in planning each day’s work more carefully, rather than just jumping in and getting stuff done because we’re on a deadline.

Interviewer: Around here we are always on deadlines. Do you think you’ll be able to get your teammates on board to devote the extra thought cycles to strategy before action?

Applicant: Actually I do, because I come to you with many examples from my past work where forging ahead without reflection cost us time instead of creating it. I think as I work on this myself, others will see the value, and together all our work will rise to a higher level.

Buzzer sounds. End of interview. Applicant wins on proposing a clearly valuable area of self-improvement that isn’t so much a confession as it is a rallying cry for shared experience in an improved workplace. Interviewer wins because an honest relationship has been established where probing does not lead to indictment, but authenticity and leadership by example.

Can a Minus Be a Plus?

If a minus can’t be a plus, why would an interviewer ask the question? That’s the whole point of asking an applicant if they have any self-identified areas for improvement. In Scenario 1, the Applicant bats away the question, the Interviewer is immediately suspicious, and no relationship can be established. In Scenario 2, the Applicant is unnecessarily candid, to the point of celebrating a shortcoming rather than addressing it, leaving the Interviewer permanently fearful and unable to bridge to a relationship. In Scenario 3, the Applicant is ready for the question, hungry to embrace personal challenge as real opportunity, and the Interviewer’s imagination can blossom to a broadening relationship that benefits the entire organization.

Two key takeaways: First, once you’re past competency, an interview is about character and compatibility—in other words, forming a relationship. If you don’t use the interview to explore the underpinnings of a relationship such that the values of a candidate align with the values of a company, a real fit isn’t going to be there. Second, if you know an interview question has a 75% or better chance of being asked, don’t wait until the question is asked to form an answer, and don’t become defensive because you don’t like the question. Thoughtfulness and preparation are your best friends before you walk into a room. You’re going to get asked these things, so please think about them in advance and always answer with authority as well as authenticity.

_____

This article originally appeared on Beyond.com

Who’s Really Sitting at the Top of Every Organizational Chart

New Org Chart 1cFacebook moved into a new office complex earlier this year, which Mark Zuckerberg has described as “the largest open floor plan in the world.” With over 400,000 square feet, it is reported not to offer a single private office. There are conference rooms, shared spaces, and all kinds of creative gathering areas meant to protect the startup environment that is core to the company’s zeitgeist as it evolves into a corporate behemoth. It’s a wild, energetic, real-time experiment in organizational development that is already being praised and criticized from inside and outside the company. Whatever your assessment might be, it’s a test of human behavior worth watching.

For a moment, I’d like to think of the Facebook campus not as a model of space planning, but as a model of team planning. Long before the debate raged on whether private offices had run their course of usefulness—and just how truly dreadful the industrial cubicle could be—company leaders were debating the “optimal” way to arrange organizational charts in the Information Age. If you’ve spent any time with me in product development, you know I like to quote the sometimes overused phrase, “People in companies get stuff done in spite of org charts, not because of them.” It’s a bias I maintain for all kinds of reasons, not the least of which is seeing it in action almost every day. Another bias I hold applies to the “optimal” way to build these org charts. I’ll confess to that in a moment, but the title of this article has likely already given away my leaning.

Let’s start with the basics. The rise of the Industrial Revolution in the 18th Century, emerging from prior Agrarian Societies, led to thousands of individuals working for single companies, for the most part creating efficiencies in the manufacturing model. Most of us are familiar with the innovation of Henry Ford as something of the father of mass production with his 20th Century Assembly Line. The premise of the organizational charts for these early corporate conglomerates surmised that a few knowledge workers and a Big Boss would send instructions down the pyramid to a wide base of workers who hopefully wouldn’t ask too many questions. Executives were at the top, middle managers squeezed in the sandwich, and individuals contributors down below busy doing their hands-on functions repeatedly. If the model sounds blunt and easy to follow, there is a reason for that—it dates back to the earliest days of broad warfare, mostly perfected by the Romans. You have an Emperor, you have Generals, you have Captains, and you have Soldiers. It worked for thousands of years in capturing terrain, albeit at the cost of mostly Soldiers, and it worked for hundreds of years in mass producing products, too often without much consideration of job satisfaction.

As education and information became more available in later decades, and asking questions became the norm, the inflexible org chart became a lot more difficult to maintain. As workers collaborated more and followed instructions less, human resources departments (formerly known as personnel offices) looked to break out of the traditional top-down structures and unleash creativity. Standard org charts evolved along the lines of two basic models: Functional Departments and Cross-Functional Teams.

Functional Departments place similarly skilled workers into groups led by senior individuals with advanced experienced in a discipline. This creates a Legal department, an Art department, an Engineering department, a Finance department, a Sales and Marketing department, and the like. Over the course of your career you might aspire to become the VP of Finance or the VP of Marketing, and these VPs, now sometimes called C-Level executives (Chief Financial Officer, Chief Marketing Officer) point the functional expertise of their teams into a Chief Executive Officer. Your company may organize itself this way. It is a very common and familiar way to organize. It’s also still very close to the old military hierarchy.

Cross-Functional Teams break the model of Artist reporting to Art Director and Engineer reporting to Engineering Director. They place multi-disciplinary groups under a generalist manager who is often more “cat herder” than boss. In this model, a smaller group of people with engineering, finance, marketing, design, and manufacturing expertise might all report to someone called a Project Lead, Product Manager, or General Manager, who is in essence a mini-CEO. Unlike Functional Departments, Cross-Functional Teams are likely to be less “permanent” in structure. The team might be ad hoc, assigned to an initiative, ready to be broken up and redeployed following a product release. Functional experts on the team might have a dual reporting relationship to the team leader and a senior expert in their area of expertise offering professional mentorship, so that a team leader who doesn’t know the law doesn’t have to render legal oversight (always a good idea). Over time Cross-Functional teams can evolve into more permanent Business Units with profit and loss responsibility for a specific line of products and extensions. If you have ever been in a company comprised of Battling Business Units , you know it can be even less fun than being buried on a Functional Team.

It is at the intersection of these two models that we all learn the necessity of Matrix Management, which unfortunately in the Information Age is the only real way we have to collaborate in an ongoing manner. Sometimes we need a Functional Department to help us advance in our area of expertise, and sometimes we need a Cross-Functional team to get stuff done with people who are good at different things. Most companies go back and forth between Functional Departments and Cross-Functional Teams, and just when you think your company has settled into a comfortable structure, along comes the inevitable memo announcing the company re-org. Companies re-org over and over in search of optimizing their growth models, but the truth is, neither approach is perfect, and whichever one your company is currently utilizing, be prepared to have it change. Re-orgs are certain because change is certain. The opposite would be sameness, and as much as you might think you want that, running in place is the surest way possible to go out of business.

Oh, about that bias of mine—I believe anything in a company that leads to entrenched fiefdoms stalls creativity. Functional Departments are usually fiefdoms. Business Units are usually fiefdoms. Again, this is why Matrix Management is a reality, particularly in managing empowered, innovative individuals who join together in a mission that is unlikely to last a lifetime, but has a real chance to change the world now. If we take that back to the visual metaphor of the open floor plan, I tend to see greater strength in the output and engagement of Cross-Functional Teams than I do Functional Departments. That doesn’t mean I am against having an exemplary CFO, CTO, or CIO setting the bar for excellence in a discipline. It just means that whatever the org chart says at the moment, I don’t want any walls between artists talking to engineers, lawyers talked to sales people, accountants talking to marketers, or anyone so distant from customers that they forget who pays everyone’s salary.

You see, at the root of all this, there only is one Emperor, one General, one CEO, one Boss who matters most. That is the voice of the Customer, whom we almost never place on the org chart. Start by putting the Customer at the top of the hierarchy, and you’ll soon understand why who reports to whom doesn’t really matter when it’s time to tally the scorecard. That’s why the walls gotta go, figuratively or literally. Go out on the floor and try to bump into a few people. You may be surprised how much you learn and how good it feels.

_____

This article originally appeared on Inc.