Be In The Room

Over the past weeks, several major companies have announced various return-to-office policies. That means a requirement to be in an office some number of days each week. Thus far I have resisted sending a similar memo because I think for the most part this is best left to the judgment of department leaders who understand their goals, More than that, I am counting on the good judgment of individuals to make sense of advancing their career horizons.

Let me offer this one bit of advice: If you have the opportunity to be in the room and are not taking it, you might be doing yourself an enormous disservice. The time you spend at home may make your current life easier. I have significant doubt it will make your future more successful.

In my experience, there is no substitute for being in the room. It is where true bonds are created. It is where you can see in person how difficult challenges are met. It is where your gifts can be shared and recognized not just by your peers and boss, but by your boss’s boss, and anyone up the chain who might poke in their head and see you in action.

That’s not office politics. That’s reality.

Willingly giving up a chance to be in the room is a choice you make at your own risk, to the extent you have the choice. If you still have that choice, consider what you might be giving up in exchange for those nasty commute hours and a refrigerator full of your own preferred food.

Several decades ago, I was a recent college graduate desperate for an opportunity. I offer the word desperate quite deliberately. Despite a bachelor’s degree in the humanities from a known college, a string of paid jobs and internships, and a resume filled with extracurricular projects, I was just another unknown job applicant in a huge pool of recent college grads. The economy was in rough shape. It seemed no one who mattered even wanted to talk with me, let alone hire me.

All I wanted was to be in the room.

Like so many others, I ceaselessly kept at it and eventually got interviews. After many of those I got hired into a lousy job, then another lousy job, then several other lousy jobs, then finally a good job that I believe started my real career. At no time during that arc or any subsequent arc did the notion of willingly working remotely ever cross my mind, although one of those jobs happened to be such four out of five days each week because they had no desk for me. Any time I was able to be at work I considered it a catapulting privilege to be among accomplished, ambitious colleagues.

I never forgot what it was like being in a small apartment waiting for the phone to ring for an invitation to be in the room. I also can’t imagine doing what I do today without those many decades of watching other people perform their jobs across the spectrum from expertly to incompetently.

Every chance to be in the room for me has been a chance to learn. At the same time, it has been a chance to collaborate, creatively engage, and be a part of innovation.

Have I taken solo work home to review evenings and over the weekend regularly? You bet.

Do I believe there are times when telecommuting makes sense? Absolutely.

Do I see the internet as an unrivaled tool to share ideas globally among people who might never have the chance to gather under the same roof? Without question.

Would any of it convince me that forgoing an opportunity to be in the room for comfort, convenience, or an alleged increase in productivity was a reasonable trade? Not on your life.

Working alone may increase efficiency. I don’t see it increasing creativity.

Covid-19 response was an anomaly. Did it teach many of us a new set of behaviors, that we could accomplish things remotely if it was a necessity? It certainly did. Is the continuing right to work remotely an entitlement that is the result of that learning? Well, not exactly.

I suppose in an employment market where talent has unlimited options, the benefit of working remotely might be a trading card that management can offer to attract team members. Yet if management is only offering this benefit because it has no choice if positions are to be filled, how positive do you think management feels about that? Hiring managers want choices just like you want choices. When anything becomes a mandate, it often does so with a nagging amount of reservation.

One of the things I noticed when Covid first grounded us was how quickly and well our leadership team adapted to remote meetings. In many respects, I think it is the reason our company succeeded and curiously accelerated during Covid. Many colleagues at other companies weren’t as lucky. Some tragically saw their companies in demise, not only as a result of unprecedented business conditions but of the challenges in responding to those conditions with untested practices.

The more I thought about this, the more I was convinced that we succeeded because of the years we previously spent together in the room. Those many years of collaboration established a solid foundation for crisis management we could apply remotely. We were able to talk in shorthand because we had established that shorthand. We were able to use humor because we knew each other’s sensibilities and sensitivities. I couldn’t even imagine the idea of trying to onboard a VP into a remote setting, where I knew others were trying and failing at this.

Our team knew this management paradigm was intended to be temporary and that we would be back in person as soon as practicable. Personally, I couldn’t wait and was back in the office as soon as I could. We also didn’t overreact. We knew that five days a week in person for everyone no longer made sense because it had never made sense. It was obvious that forty or so required office hours was too broad a brush. We knew workplace equilibrium would work itself out, while we counted on individuals to make sense of their careers in tandem with company needs.

Moderation always seems like a better approach to consensus than absolutes. Individual decisions always seem preferable to sweeping mandates when inspiring people’s best work.

I had a sense that every individual would come to understand the value of being in the room. To be in the room is to absorb the skills you will call upon to address the next set of challenges you will face. To be in the room is a gift, perhaps not every day, but on the days that matter and will stay with you for a lifetime.

You may be arguing with me in your head. You may be telling yourself this is a new day, a different generation, a wiser and more inspired collective that embraces work-life balance and knows to mistrust corporations that don’t have their best interests at heart. You might be convinced that because technology advances have made remote work viable, we’d be silly not to ride the horse in the direction it seems to be going. You might be right, but I am always reminded of those very dangerous words that creep up every time I think they are going away forever: “This time is different.”

I have written before about leverage in getting your way. It can be an effective tactic as a matter of last resort, but it is seldom a path to trust, long-term relationships, and compounding progress. If the only reason you are allowed to work remotely is that you think your employer has no other choices, I wonder whether you really want to work for that company. If there is a mutual understanding about workplace arrangements that benefits you and your employer in agreeing to a schedule that helps you with childcare, quiet time to think on your own, and still leaves room for in-person collaboration, that’s one thing. If either side is making a demand of the other, that seems like a shaky platform to advance together.

Some types of professions like software engineering seem particularly well suited to remote working as has been evinced by decades of sharing libraries and contributing to enterprise projects, where most of the engineer’s time is spent on individually created program code that is later assembled with other modules. Even then, when I see software engineers in a room with marketing and finance professionals, I often see exponential progress in shorter windows of time.

Don’t undervalue intangibles. Learning to read a room can help you secure unexpected allies to support a controversial strategy. The most unassuming bits of advice acquired from unfamiliar colleagues in the breakroom can be life-changing. Lifelong friendships emerge and develop from unplanned acts of empathy and compassion. You can say all of that plus mentorship and coaching are available electronically and you’ll be right. The in-person impacts you might be underestimating are tone, degree, and happenstance.

When we are together, we learn from each other. We have peripheral vision that lets us see not just what Zoom or Teams puts on the video screen, but what catches our attention in the corner of our eye. We take in winning and losing arguments and approaches. We have the unique opportunity to establish and build company culture.

My advice: Don’t wait for the company directive, don’t even wait to be asked politely. If you have the opportunity, be in the room.

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Photo: Pexels

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The Trust Quandary

I spend a lot of time in airports. If you look around the airport, endless dramas are playing out. People coming, going, hugging, saying goodbye sometimes forever, welcoming home friends and family gone who knows how long. When I look at so many strangers, I often wonder about the ideas that bond and separate us as co-inhabitants of cities, states, and our nation. That often leads me to think about our common ideas of trust.

Why trust at the airport? If you get on as many planes as I do, trust is implicit in the experience. I don’t know the pilots. I don’t know the state of the equipment I’m boarding. I don’t know who else is going to populate that airborne metal tube for the next several hours at 30,000 or more feet above sea level.

A few weeks ago my flight was delayed more than ten hours in a reasonably bad storm. It happened to be Election Day. When they finally let us board, I walked onto the plane and took my seat as quickly as I could. I looked out the window and saw a wet runway and dark sky hurling rain and wind. I didn’t ask to exit. I didn’t ask for reassurance that the crew was rested. I trusted everyone involved in the decision that it was safe to fly.

Since you’re reading this blog post, you can presume that wasn’t a fateful choice on my part. It surely could have been, but somehow trust in people I didn’t know, a company that employs them, and a government division assigned to oversee the activity carried the day. Other than thinking I wanted to write about it, I didn’t think much about it at all.

Is trust a form of absurdity or is some form of it necessary for us to share common spaces?

Perhaps it is both.

It isn’t a coincidence that I write this immediately following an election. Somehow over the past few elections, it has become vogue in certain circles to simply dismiss the reported, monitored, and validated results of an election as fraudulent. If one’s candidate loses an election, especially by a narrow margin, there is no easier way to declare victory than to declare a lack of trust in the voting process. It doesn’t even require evidence to attack the fairness of the vote count. We all can say what we want, and if we want to say our candidate lost because the election was compromised by fraud, we have the freedom to say that.

To summarize: I can trust the strangers controlling the jet airliner I’m going to fly with four hundred other strangers through a storm, but I can’t trust the civil servants whose job it is to count votes accurately. That one seems tough to reconcile.

Some say that democracy itself was on the last ballot, with the outstanding question of whether the tallied results would result in the winning candidates being lawfully seated. Again, just typing that sentence makes my fingers tremble. Democracy has been at the core of my personal values for as long as I can remember. I presume as a citizen of this nation I get to vote along with everyone else and the counted votes will direct an outcome. I don’t think about it any more than getting on the plane in the storm.

That doesn’t mean I don’t want expert monitors overseeing the transportation industry or our voting booths. If I can’t trust either one of those, I can’t fly and I can’t agree to follow laws passed by legislators. When we throw in the towel on trust, our ability to function in shared spaces is dramatically curtailed. Without some presumed notion of trust, I am not sure we can function at all.

Before you write to let me know what a mark I am likely to be for targeted scams, let me assure you my trust is not easily won. If you’ve worked with me, you know this emphatically. If you’ve ever sold me something of substance and been paid cash money for it, you know it even more. Even then I am wildly understating the difficulty to win my personal trust, but it can be won. If it can’t, we can’t do great things together. We can’t do anything at all.

Do I worry trust is abused? More than you can imagine. Baby boomers know a thing or two about trust. We were raised with the Vietnam War. We were raised with Kent State. We were raised with Richard Nixon. One of our most memorable anthems declared, “We won’t get fooled again.”

It sickens me when trust is blatantly abused.

It sickens me that people trusted FTX and its once-celebrated CEO to help them navigate the already shaky world of cryptocurrency. If you trusted FTX as an investment, you likely lost all your money.

It sickens me that people trusted a night out with friends at an LGBTQ dance club in Colorado Springs and five of them didn’t return home, with as many as 25 others injured in the semiautomatic weapon assault. If you were someone who put trust in diversity and acceptance that night, your trust was forever violated.

It sickens me that the federal government offered much-needed financial aid to individuals and small businesses through the CARES act, and billions of these dollars were diverted to fraudulent claims. If you needed Paycheck Protection Program dollars and didn’t get any when they ran out, there’s a good chance you trusted the custodians of these funds to be ahead of con artists, and they weren’t.

Does that mean we going to stop investing, going to clubs, or filing applications for government programs? It can’t, any more than we should consider not flying or accepting the results of certified elections.

Trust in some shape or form is always going to be violated, which is why we must continue to insist on as many reasonable safeguards against these violations as technical and process engineering can muster. I don’t know anyone in the FAA, but if I don’t trust that agency to do its job, or I don’t support proper legal action to correct its performance should it fail, my time at the airport is done.

If I don’t trust the vast majority of fellow citizens to behave civilly in public, I can no longer go out and presume I am coming home as healthy as I left.

If I don’t trust my doctor to perform a procedure when I am under anesthesia, I can’t have the procedure.

And if we can’t trust the certified results of a routine election, then we can’t have a democracy. We didn’t protest against all the attacks on civil liberties this past half century to give up our democracy. We did it to enhance and preserve this incomparable gift of sharing spaces, agreeing to disagree, and believing that if we didn’t get our choice in the last election, the next one will be coming soon. That next election has to be a certainty or the experiment is over. I’m calling the experiment alive if not perfectly well, but necessary and enduring.

There might be an absurdity underlying the notion of trust. If that kind of trust is what it takes to get me on the next scheduled flight, call me absurd. I’ll see you at the airport and at the ballot box.

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Photo: Pixabay

The Difficult and the Daunting

You may have heard recently that Amazon is pulling back a bit on hiring and warehouse space. With all their vast resources in strategic planning, the executive team there overshot on leasing square feet their forecasts no longer support. I suspect they will manage through this just fine in the long run with little impact on earnings, but it is a powerful reminder of how difficult it is to predict future business both when you’re in an up-market and a down one.

We all get this wrong now and again. It’s normal and usually navigable. The problems come when balancing present challenges heavily compromises a company’s future, or betting only on the future sours a company’s current performance to the point where no one cares about the future.

I am often humbled by the nagging paradox of making tough business decisions every day at the relentless pace of 24x7x365. Running a company in response to everyday circumstances in the present will always be difficult, Running a company for an opaque future will always be daunting.

We have to do both well to accomplish our current goals and set the table for the next generation of growth prospects. Favor either the present or the future too heavily and the question becomes whether you want to lose now or later. While that’s not an option any leader wants to consider, if we don’t see the delicacy in how one affects the other, our intentions can be undermined by our outcomes.

We often hear about the pressures of being a public company, how corporate leaders make choices to focus on quarterly earnings from which they financially benefit immediately over building strong companies for the long haul. I do think this happens at some companies where short-term stock performance can dramatically impact executive compensation. Too often those companies fall prey to what Clayton Christensen famously has called The Innovator’s Dilemma and allow their long-established norms of success to be fully disrupted by more nimble competitors.

There’s a more ironic take on this notion, where equity markets sometimes forgive emerging companies for failing to produce earnings at all in the near term in the hope that someday they will have gained so much market share that they will prove invincible. This all-or-nothing strategy has paid off handsomely for companies like Amazon that didn’t produce earnings for years, reinvested heavily in their growth, and today reap the benefits of that bet. Sadly, this example has been exploited by too many newly public companies that don’t even consider near-term profitability a goal, allowing lazy business models to overshadow unfounded optimism that someday their customers will reward them with enviable positions.

A company that bets only on the future, never becomes economically successful, and runs out of cash can be train-wrecked just as decisively as a once successful company that fails to address The Innovator’s Dilemma. If the executives steering either of those failures happen to be selling shares along the way to a company’s demise, a feast of lawyers will follow.

Inflation and rising interest rates make the cost of doing business higher for everyone. We painstakingly decide how much of these costs we pass along to customers and how much we absorb. The benefit of preserving current operating margins is always tempting, but the rewards of long-term customer loyalty and lifetime value speak for themselves. How do we decipher the balance between current and future financial results? Data will often shine a light on the path, but there are no conclusive textbooks with clear answers to these calculations.

It truly is hard to run a company both for today and tomorrow. We have to consider the staff sizes we need, the leases we’ll require, the stability of our supply chains, price elasticity, and the promise of our brands. We also carefully must watch cash flow, our balance sheets, compensation, incentives, technology advancements, and investments in future product cycles. What works today may or may not work tomorrow. It is seldom that what works perfectly in one set of conditions works just as well in another.

There are no perfect answers, but the fluidity of making a decision now for its short and long-term impact usually weighs heavily on those who wrestle with the impossible crystal ball.

Covid-19 has been a good reminder of how difficult and daunting decisions can be. We were all blind during Covid and it was easy to misread fluctuating data. No leader had substantial experience with stay-at-home working conditions. No one knew how long the pandemic would last, how it would impact supply and demand, or how it would impact investor sentiment. If that wasn’t enough of a challenge, most of what we thought going into Covid proved to be wrong, and most of our assumptions about how employees, customers, and investors would behave post-Covid have been equally wrong.

If you want to be humbled, try making decisions that address the unknown with this level of frequency. You’ll likely realize you’re wrong more than you’re right, but the less tangible skill we develop is how to rethink and react quickly when we discover we are wrong. That’s why the rewards for creating a company that is “built to last” are immense, but the odds of lasting fifty years are long.

When it comes time to decide short or long, know you have to do both, and do your best you to keep dialogue and debate flowing among diverse opinions. The decisions we make have an impact we might be able to see today, but unless you know someone who has a gift the world has never seen, we are almost always speculating on the impact a year or more from today. Sometimes it’s decades before we find out if we were right or wrong.

We choose to sign up for the difficult and the daunting. The longer I do this, the more humbling it is.

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Photo: Pixabay

Are You Smarter Than Elon Musk?

I’ve written before about Elon Musk. He’s impressive on many levels, but he needs a bit of humbling on behalf of his peer group. He knows what he knows. He doesn’t know more.

I don’t need Elon Musk to teach me about free speech. He doesn’t have the credentials.

I also don’t need Mark Zuckerberg to teach me about community, openness, or how we’re going to live in the meta future. He’s a guy who sells online ads. He’s not a futurist.

The opinions of these people outside their realms of expertise aren’t just conflicted; they are arrogant, self-serving, naive, and potentially dangerous.

Wisdom is not fungible. Insight is not fungible. A person can be really good at something and nothing else. They just don’t know it, or perhaps they choose to embrace a platform of pretension. Self-aggrandizement is often a spoil of war.

A thought leader with demonstrable success in one category has no de facto claim to distant adjacencies. A celebrity, even a business celebrity, doesn’t become a subject matter expert beyond their recognized success simply by claiming the public microphone and turning up the volume.

Knowledge is not transferable by sheer force of will or cult of personality. An ego like Musk would have you believe he can layer meaning where none exists. An agenda is not the same as a common belief set, or even a clearly defensible philosophy.

Your opinion of what constitutes the normal social limits or lack thereof around free speech is every bit as valid as that of Musk. He can spend billions and buy anything he wants, but that does not make him right, only influential. He can call himself a free speech absolutist, but he made that up. It’s a pithy expression meant to draw attention to himself, but consider Los Angeles Times writer Michael Hiltzik’s extrapolation of Musk’s mandate in a more chaotic application of the extreme unleashed:

“If that means that users will be able to post anything they wish on Twitter, no matter how redolent they are of ‘sexual harassment, group harassment, insults or name-calling, posting private info, threatening to expose private info, violent event denial, violent threats, celebration of violent acts’ or any of the other violations of Twitter rules that currently allow the platform to shut down an account, that would be bad.”

You may agree or disagree. You may say Musk has agreed to abide by the law, but his interpretation of the law may not be yours. Musk is a contrarian who finds delight in arguing against laws and has no trouble surfacing the means to challenge high court opinions in endless adjudications. As long as there remains an appeal to be had, Musk can prevail with his opinions despite the collateral damage of their impact. None of that makes him correct in the abstract, but too often the power of holding today’s authority is confused with ethical vindication.

Your point of view matters on the issue, because you have the same foundation and standing to express your own point of view. What you likely don’t have are the resources at his disposal or the same hidden agenda he is not going to publicly express. What you probably do have is a touch of measured humility, balanced perspective, and everyday graciousness for those around you.

You’re also likely not putting on a show. Healthy policy debate deserves better than purchased amplification.

Proclamations can be noise alone, or they can have severe implications. We get fooled all the time by the loudest voices in the room claiming an ask that is more than what it appears.

Rich is fine. Successful is fine. Neither offers someone transitive intellect.

In Fiddler on the Roof, Tevye sings, ”When you’re rich, they think you really know.” He wrestles with the irony of his dream. He wants to be sought by his fellow villagers as an all-wise sage and would gladly play that celebrated role in his community. Yet he knows from his deep faith he’s an ordinary man with or without money, not an inspired prophet.

We all have claim to an opinion. The validity of that opinion stands or falls on the credibility of its supporting argument and disciplined construct, not on the bank account or unaffiliated resume of its speaker.

If you think you know more about free speech than Elon Musk, it’s entirely possible you do. That would make you smarter than Elon Musk. I’m not sure it’s a compliment, but hold it in reserve should the foolishness you hear each day give you reason to stand up for your own well-considered belief system.

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Photo: Pixabay