What’s Eating Brother Elon?

Let’s start with what needs to be said before all else: I am an enormous fan of Elon Musk. I think he is quite likely the most important and visionary entrepreneur today leading the way in technology, business, and innovation. He walks in the American continuum of Edison, Disney, Gates, and Jobs.  I wrote as much in a post dating back to 2014.

So when a guy as brilliant as Musk goes sideways, I start to ask myself some questions. Like, what’s up with all the weirdness?

Clearly I have no ability to understand what’s going on in this amazing individual’s life, other than to observe the monumental toll that stress can take on even the mightiest of titans. To guess at what might be at the root of Musk’s recent unpleasant run in the headlines would seem a fool’s errand.

While I am unable to fashion an informed evaluation of why Musk appears in many ways to be undermining his own success of late, I am thinking about the learning that might be had from observing his stress. I am reasonably certain he will have no interest in my reflections of what his behavior could be telling us, but perhaps this will provide a mirror for others on what some of this means and how it possibly could be addressed.

Here are five thoughts on that.

Focus Is No Small Trick

Can one person really be an effective CEO at more than one company? It’s hard enough to be a decent CEO period. Now add longevity to the CEO run and enormous competitive forces, and you start to wonder if running both Tesla (after integrating SolarCity) and SpaceX is remotely possible. Let’s also not forget that Musk is additionally CEO of Neuralink and The Boring Company. If you have ever been CEO of a high-growth company or even know one, you are aware that the job requires super-human energy, and even then the clock is always ticking against the corner office. Musk is beyond super-human, not only as a leader but as a founder who tackles some of the most difficult problems of our day. Will he succeed at all of his goals? I am sure a lot of investors and customers are counting on that, but wouldn’t the odds be more in his favor if he narrowed the scope of his personal agenda and delegated authority with a much broader brush?

A Competitive Advantage Is Not Forever

Tesla has created leading-edge, clean-exhaust automobiles. These electric vehicles are as beautiful and luxurious as anyone could have imagined. Most Tesla owners are evangelists for the company and fiercely loyal to the brand. There is no question that Tesla has been an inspired market leader, but all it takes is one visit to the showrooms of other luxury car companies and you start to see that high-end electric cars are on a fast path to becoming commodities under many brands. BMW and Jaguar already are introducing competitive product lines. Others are on the way. Staying ahead of the pack is its own form of madness and a lot less fun than introducing first-of-a-kind category killers. Can playing king of the hill without a summit in sight have a troubling impact on the psyche? How can it not?

Production Efficiency Is as Difficult as Innovation

Why hasn’t a new auto manufacturer in the U.S. survived at scale beyond the Big Three? The bulk of car buyers want cheap—most consumers don’t have an option to spend more, so the entrenched behemoths take small margins to achieve broad sales and then make money in other ways like service and financing. When you are playing with other people’s money, the demands of Wall Street can be insanely demanding. It’s hard to make big bucks selling very few cars. While Model S and Model X are both category-defining luxury cars, they remain low-volume production units with difficult margin economics given their scale. Model 3, the low-cost mass-market entry, is supposed to change the scale of Tesla, but realizing the dream of high-volume, low-cost, low-margin automobile economics seems precisely what is eating away at our hero. Is the problem perhaps not solvable with the reality of capital constraints all businesses face? Is there another business model beyond manufacturing that Tesla might want to explore with respect to the investment burden they carry?

Health Matters

A lot of people at the upper echelons of business take pride in working themselves to death, or at least appearing to do so. I will admit I am personally not beyond this criticism, and have winced more than once when listening to colleagues celebrate the notion of work-life balance even in the most competitive environments. Many leaders demonstrate manic obsession in their devotion to their enterprises, and it is hard to argue a company can be at the top of its game with a standard forty-hour work week. That said, no matter how much we wish to argue the contrary, we are human, our bodies have limits, and when we cross our own lines of practicality, we can become counterproductive. Sleep matters. Nutrition matters. Some relief from stress is necessary to be consistent in exercising good judgment and productive reasoning. When our vitality breaks down, it is only a matter of time before we collapse or the responsibilities we own become compromised.

Authenticity Does Not Require Unrestrained Drama

The modern workforce is not put off when a boss exhibits some vulnerability. Relationships defined by org charts actually can be strengthened when a manager exhibits humility toward his or her own limitations. Leaders who acknowledge that emotions and potential exhaustion set them on a level playing field with peers and subordinates can foster a dynamic environment of trust and support. That doesn’t mean employees and other stakeholders want executives to ramble, wander, or become media fodder. Remember that old saying, “When you’re in a hole, stop digging.” Random proclamations to shareholders and needlessly quirky public appearances can leave deep craters on the social graph. All organizations want some form of predictability in the leaders they choose to follow. When they lose confidence in top management because of repeated, silly, and unnecessary antics that can demoralize their aspirations, they can make another choice. They vote with their feet.

I am rooting for Elon Musk to win, for SpaceX even more than Tesla, because he has proven that not only government bureaucracies can build dependable rockets. That is forcing innovation around reusability in space exploration and keeping admirable government spending on otherworldly travel in check. While I probably can’t put a dent in Musk’s corrective arc (which I want to believe is on the horizon), perhaps I can open the eyes of a few mere mortals to the underlying tension of his story. Perhaps your story of stress and self-expectation has similar subplots of immovable market forces. What could you be doing to course-correct that might give Musk reason to pay attention?

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Three Thousand Ears in Cape Town


You’re probably thinking there is a typo in that headline. Nope. It’s correct. Not years. Ears.

This is a story about service. This is a story about choices and not enough choices. This is a story about experiential learning and tangible human impact, one small moment at a time.

Three thousand is an estimate of how many children’s ears were recently screened in Philippi Township, Cape Town, Western Cape, South Africa. At best count and two ears per young child, a volunteer team screened about 1500 children for otherwise undetected ear infections. If left untreated, this preventable and correctable condition could easily have left many of these children permanently deaf. About ten required immediate surgery. Six had cysts that could have resulted in meningitis or death.

A project of this scope had never been attempted. The average number of children screened by public health services in the township for ear care is 150-200 per year, largely based on referrals. The team we assembled, working hand in hand with local clinicians familiar with medical infrastructure in the township, took on more than that each day. Once this model partnership committed to the challenge, there was nothing stopping them from achieving a new record they can’t wait to break or see broken.

The ear clinic was only one of many innovative projects our group of volunteers tackled earlier this month near the far-away Cape of Good Hope. One team worked on AIDS prevention and education in a place where HIV remains epidemic, potentially impacting the vitality of an entire emerging generation. A construction team built bookshelves for public schools across the township. Another team focused on robotics learning, with young children lighting up as their minds opened to the basics of computer programming.

We also ran a dance program led by a former champion from television’s Dance Fever. We engaged a team of professional journalists to start a school newspaper. We organized a series of open discussions on women’s health and personal well-being. We developed a peer-to-peer math mentoring program for high school students.

My own team focused on business consulting with micro-entrepreneurs, working with an NGO called Business Activator to help bolster start-up companies. We were based in a unique business park created from the remnants of an old cement factory, with stacked shipping containers creating storefronts along a makeshift plaza.

So what’s the buzz? Why were we in Cape Town? Why take this on in lieu of a leisurely vacation?

It was all about service—an alumni project organized by my college. This time a hundred volunteers descended on Cape Town, a highly unusual metropolis of contrasts and contradictions. You may remember that I wrote about a similar project a year ago at the Fort Mojave Indian Reservation. Indeed, this is the tenth anniversary of the Yale Alumni Service Corps, harnessing the passion of individuals from all walks of life to immerse themselves in unfamiliar cultures and spend a week helping to ignite a spark in the lives of others that will be embraced, measurable, and lasting.

If you’ve ever dedicated any amount of time to volunteer service, you know the cliché is apt that you take away much more in your heart than you can ever give of your time. A visit to a place as complicated and torn as Cape Town can change your life if you let it. At the very least it can change your perspective on what you thought you knew about a subject as harrowing and sadly unresolved as apartheid.

I thought I understood the plague of apartheid from reading about it in newspapers and history books. I thought I understood the plight of institutionalized racial oppression from seeing the struggles on television and internet video. I thought I understood the meaning of healing through Mandela’s Long Walk to Freedom.

The little I understood was academic. I didn’t know it until I was in Cape Town, but I needed to be in the townships to even start to internalize what apartheid was and what of it remains. Apartheid may officially be dead, but its pervasive toxins leave long, lingering trenches of decay.

Now I have seen this. I also see the corollaries to many of the deepest problems in our own backyards. A simple service project made this possible.

Service isn’t just about doing good deeds. Service is about cultural immersion. Service is about lifelong learning. Service is about coming to terms with empathy for distant problems that on closer examination are wildly close to home.

On the second day of our trip, my direct observations on an extended bus ride through the townships almost stopped my breathing. I had never before seen systemic, uncontrolled poverty on that scale. As much as I thought I knew what economic inequality meant, nothing prepared me for seeing the ruins brought on by apartheid sprawling without containment almost a quarter-century after the election of Nelson Mandela.

Service let me see this. Service opened my eyes to the impact of history and the seemingly immovable obstacles of current events.

There is no way words can adequately describe the inequality in Cape Town. The city center is picturesque and opulent, with cascading views of the gorgeous waterfront. Quaint streets reflecting British influence and signage wind past towering universities, luxury-car dealerships, and New World wine-tasting rooms.

Fifteen minutes down the road are the townships originally created by apartheid, still standing—expanding actually—with millions living in abject poverty. Many live ten or more in tiny corrugated metal shacks, if they have an overhead shelter at all. There is minimal plumbing, shared toilet structures, electricity pirated from public lines tempting common incidents of fire. School dropout rates approach 80%. Unemployment stands near 25% with utter confusion among the suffering how America is not stuck in the same recession.

It all seems apocalyptic. We aren’t talking a few blocks or a few streets of urban decay. We’re talking mile after mile of human beings on top of each other trying to survive, source decent food, tote clean water, find a way out.

Remember, this is more than 25 years after the end of apartheid, which astonishingly lasted as law into the early 1990s! I was shocked to hear several young people actually speak ill of Mandela. To some he has become more myth than legend, and they question why his promises haven’t panned out for their prosperity. Many have become cynical, wondering why his vision was never realized, whether he compromised too easily and sold out their future. It is common to hear the electorate speak openly of parliament as corrupt and self-serving. They ask if the ANC can once again become their champions.

In service we seek to offer hope, and while there were glimmers of resilience in each of our day’s work, the scale of oppression remains impossible to talk past. All of this is the long tail of apartheid, a system so vicious and deeply embedded in societal ills it is difficult to decipher how many generations it will take to overcome. I was left thinking of the United States after our Civil War, how long it took for any kind of normalcy to prevail, where even today we can’t seem to get past racial hatred. I wondered how in the embers of Nazi defeat at the end of World War II, with the Nuremberg Trials in the headlines, it was possible for apartheid come to power with the National Party in 1948. The irony of 1948 is impossible to escape. That was the founding of Israel.

Our work in Cape Town was facilitated by a dynamic NGO known as Amandla Development, whose mission is to “empower children to succeed from cradle to career.” One of the sheer joys of being in Cape Town was getting to know the local staff of Amandla, to spend time with people who grew up in the townships and are now determined to reverse the course of history by touching the lives of children one at a time. This is how hope becomes action—not with epic commitments of resources in attempts to shatter daunting obstructions, but in finding one or two individuals open to the idea of collaboration and helping them improve their lives.

Our volunteers in journalism reported that many of the students in their program seldom interact at all with white people. They simply don’t have the occasion or opportunity, another awful remnant of apartheid. One student wrote that she never thought she would develop a friendship with a white person. That friend became the person who encouraged her to publish her first story.

All that brings me back to the 3000 ears in Cape Town. Perhaps on equal footing with ensuring quality hearing for these 1500 children was the opportunity to let each one of them know that we care about them. Our volunteers didn’t just process them through a waiting line. These were very young children, most of whom don’t begin learning English until the third grade. Of course they wondered why we were there. Our loving colleagues went to their classrooms and explained through a translator what we were doing, that they would be in no discomfort, and that we truly were friends from abroad.

Raising awareness of the scourge of hearing related diseases was as important a part of the mission as the specific medical attention offered. Adroitly changing the perception of these maladies from endemic to treatable afforded our educators an enormous creative window. While the children were waiting to see the doctors, our volunteers played games, sang songs, and worked on art projects with them to reinforce this learning. I can’t help hoping that some of these children will remember these joyful moments of sharing as they become adults. I know our volunteers will never forget them.

Perhaps the Cape of Good Hope is well named. I won’t forget any of it. Not apartheid, not the townships, not the children, not the entrepreneurs in their offices anticipating a brighter future.

That is the nature of service. I’m pretty sure we can’t fix this rotten, broken, unjust world. I’m completely certain we can always help one or two strangers if we care to make that choice.

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Photo: Copyright Melanie Belman-Gross (shared with permission)

A Beguiling 20%


This month our nation celebrated its 242nd birthday. As I was sitting in the stands at Dodger Stadium on July 4 watching a spectacular and patriotic fireworks display (following a wonderful midseason win) something quite obvious but strange occurred to me:

I have been alive for over 20% of our nation’s history.

That may not seem curious to you, but it does to me. No one in Russia, China, or most of western Europe can say that.

It is only because we are such a young nation that our lives constitute such a significant portion of our nation’s entire state of being.

I have been trying to put that in context. I am over a half-century in age, and the nation is less than five half centuries in age. For sake of context, I have tried to segment those de facto quintiles into what I have experienced as current events (the most recent 20%) and what I must study as history.

Latest 20%: Age of economic triumph, the information age, and age of civil rights.

Prior 20%: Age of two world wars, one Great Depression, and vast immigration.

Middle 20%: Age of Civil War and Reconstruction.

Second 20%: Age of Manifest Destiny & Industrial Revolution.

Initial 20%: Age of our Founding Fathers, American Revolution, and the visionary foundation of secular democratic governance.

It doesn’t seem like a whole lot of time for all that to have happened when you think about it. I guess that’s because it really isn’t. What’s 242 years? These days, it’s about three full lifetimes. If you time them correctly, you could talk to someone who talked to someone who knew someone who experienced Independence Day as current events.

That’s just wild. Mind-boggling! And look how far we’ve come!

Or have we?

Well, we have sent humans to the moon and probes to Jupiter and Pluto. We have air conditioning, spiffy kitchen appliances, and running water in our homes (when we don’t run out). We have lots and lots of TV channels. We have supercharged computers in our pockets we call mobile phones. We have this Internet thing that has eliminated almost all barriers to information access and makes globalization a reality.

Yet we still fight a lot, among ourselves and with faraway strangers. It seems that in every one of those quintiles we fought a lot. Maybe fighting is a constant in almost every nation’s evolution. History would seem to reinforce that recurrence.

We haven’t had all that many U.S. presidents. Our current office holder is only number 45. Many recaps of U.S. presidents show that many of the individuals who held the office weren’t very good at it in hindsight. Luckily, there are a few most of us agree regardless of political affiliation will always be American heroes. There’s Lincoln. There’s Washington. I think it might start to get controversial after that.

I wonder if the top people in charge of running our nation day-to-day in all its complexity—whether elected officials or policy makers or military leaders or business executives or educators—are in awe of their 20% stage time. I doubt it. The truly influential people I know and the many I study from afar seem to like their gigs a lot, but in my observation very few of them seem in awe.

I also wonder how many of the leaders guiding our 20% are good listeners. Do they hear the studied voices among us? Do they listen for the quieter voices who choose not to enter the knock-down, drag-out drama of overpowering influences and powerful, conflicted mandates? Do they immerse themselves in understanding the previous 80% of our time as a nation where we might have emerged a winner but didn’t necessarily embrace a sense of humility and real justice in establishing a fair set of rules? Do they strive for a true sense of vision or just winning for bragging rights and lovely take-home prizes?

I also find myself thinking about things I have lived through largely from inception, particularly the rapid compounding of computer technology. I imagine this is how people felt who went from horses and buggies to the Model T, having seen automobiles take over roads that were created for drawn carriages. I can’t remember a time before air travel, but my dad can. When I think about his lifespan, the numerator and denominator tell me he has lived through almost a third of the nation’s history. He may achieve a beguiling 40%!

I thought life was breathtakingly scientific when I sat in front of a black-and-white CRT eating Space Food Sticks while NASA astronauts blasted into orbit. Now I write about that as nostalgia while pretty much every public document in human history is available to me by typing on this keyboard into a conceptual framework of storage we simply refer to as the cloud.

Why take pause on the magnitude of a quintile? I guess for one reason because I am naturally sentimental about milestones. All forks in the road of consequence inspire my introspection, giving me excuse if not reason to try to put into perspective the meaning of our timeline.

Yet more than that, I am particularly absorbed in trying to make sense of the coming quintile, which by all stretches of the imagination I will not see resolved. I suppose if lucky I may live to see our nation on its 275th birthday, but there is not chance I will see our Tricentennial.

Am I worried what we might become collectively between now and then? If you are a regular reader of this blog, you know the depth of my concern. I guess that will give me much to write about as we walk forward together through future milestone celebrations. Between now and then, I can only hope that the nation’s leadership does embrace the gravitas of our current context.

America is an idea more than anything. Promising ideas need to be nurtured, not battered.

Speaking of milestones, this happens to be my 200th blog post since I launched CorporateIntel in 2011. Along the way I have met hundreds of interesting new people both virtually and in person. Writing is a solitary endeavor until you push the Publish button on your text editor. This magnificent innovation has opened my life to so many minds I would never otherwise have encountered. When we share ideas and swap stories, technology goes into the background and our human thoughts take precedence over the engineering that facilitates our interactions. As long as human interaction and exchange overrides the technical wonder of its creation, you can count on me for another 200.

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Photo: Pexels

My Beatles Top 10

Paul McCartney, John Lennon, Ringo Starr, George Harrison

Is it just me or we in the midst of a Beatles Renaissance? Each month of this decade offers a 50th anniversary of something surrounding The Beatles. I’ve already attended the 50th anniversary of The Beatles concert at Dodger Stadium. I’ve enjoyed a screening of Ron Howard’s documentary Eight Days a Week featuring the band’s live tours of the U.S. to celebrate the 50th anniversary of their final stadium appearance. I’ve bought the live performance audio CD with reengineered recordings from the new film. I’ve subscribed to the new Beatles Channel on SiriusXM. I’ve marveled at multiple “Deconstructing The Beatles” lectures by my friend Scott Freiman, whose live presentations are now memorialized on DVD.

Okay, maybe it’s just me. Then again, with my new novel coming about how the soundtrack of our lives is inescapable in charting our life paths, The Beatles have never been more in the forefront of my mind.

For many years I have wanted to suggest my own Beatles Top 10 song list, but I have resisted for multiple reasons. First, because it does seem to change from year to year, depending on what’s consuming my attention or memory. Second, because I have been strictly advised by most Beatles luminaries that this is a fool’s errand—to rate The Beatles catalogue is akin to publicly stating the order in which you love your family and friends (a 2017 noble but flawed attempt to force rank all 213 songs is strong evidence of this). Third, because a single omission or overstated opinion might start an argument far more volatile than any around religion or politics, again putting the goodwill of colleagues at high risk. And fourth, because for all these reasons and more, I would undoubtedly be on course to a retraction, apology, restatement, or mass deleting of this post from the digital world, which is of course impossible.

Lists have a sad tendency to become permanent, even if deemed ephemeral.

Well, too bad, I’m doing it, if for no other reason than to defy my own fears, which I am certain John, Paul, George, and Ringo would applaud. I’ve restricted the list to songs written and recorded by The Beatles in their organic whole, without covers or selections from their various solo careers. The list is not in a precise order 1 to 10, because that numeration does ebb and flow with my mood, and so they remain unnumbered out of sheer fear of regret. Directionally this is my set list, and I hope I can stick to it.

Ladies and gentlemen, The Beatles!

In My Life (1965)

Hey, it’s my wedding song. If I don’t put it in first position I’m really in trouble. But it’s my wedding song for a reason, and the lyrics sit in a silver frame on my wife’s dresser because I bought the frame and put them there for both of us to read every day. Have a look at the words sometime. You may want to change your wedding song. “In my life, I love you more.”

While My Guitar Gently Weeps (1968)

This George Harrison tune haunts me unendingly, even more so since we lost George in 2001. I remember walking into a rock memorabilia store in Las Vegas years ago and seeing The Concert for George playing from a DVD on a widescreen and just standing there mesmerized with the sound pouring out in tribute. The guitar licks emerge like spoken lyrics and weave in and out of the simple verses with delicacy and determination. If you wanted to solo within the voice of an originator, this song gives you the chance of a lifetime.

Get Back (1969)

Whenever the word “Beatles” crosses my eardrums, I think of this song. It’s the quintessential tune that harnesses the ethos of the band, emerging from the tension of the end of their career but harkening back to the earliest days at the Cavern Club. If you ever get a chance to see the amazing Cirque du Soleil show Love at The Mirage in Vegas, or simply immerse yourself in the soundtrack mixed by George Martin, note the placement of this song in the early transition of the show from one era to another. The back beat is railroad steady yet quiet, it roars and rumbles without being bombastic. It is sonic, uncompromised rock ‘n’ roll, with Billy Preston on the backing keyboards to bring it home.

Nowhere Man (1965)

Ever have a song you can’t get out of your head because you’re not supposed to get it out of your head? This song, which somehow found its way into the core of the Yellow Submarine screenplay and inspired the character Jeremy Hillary Boob Ph.D., sings to me at every level of interpretation and inspiration. It begins a capella, offers some of the band’s finest happy harmonies, and tells a story that reaches into our hearts. “Isn’t he a bit like you and me?”

I Saw Her Standing There (1963)

Should you have the poor fortune of walking into a karaoke bar when I’m the leadoff fodder, I will be kicking off with this standard. It’s simple, it’s lively, it’s old school, and it works. It’s my wife’s second-favorite Beatles song no matter how badly I botch it. There is also a bit of sentimentality in it for me, as I remember when Lennon came out of hiding in 1974 after a tough few years, he was brought onstage for this one by Elton John—even more ironic because it’s a McCartney vocal. It’s on the B-side of “Philadelphia Freedom.” If you don’t know what a B-side is, my apologies.

Here Comes the Sun (1969)

How can a song be purely joyous and enormously sad at the same time? George Harrison had a way not only with melody and instrumentation, but with short words as fuses of emotion. Similar to “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” (and for that matter, “Something,” which just barely misses my list), it seems as though this epic was meant to be covered and reinterpreted. Did you see George play it with Paul Simon on Saturday Night Live in 1976? Yes, you need to do that.

Come Together (1969)

This is one of those Beatles tunes that sort of doesn’t fit in with the rest of their discography. It’s almost too dark for the lads from Liverpool to pull off, yet they do. The drumbeat cooked up by Ringo is as hallucinatory as the lyrics are caustic and scary. Possibly the only good thing to come out of the disastrous movie adaptation of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was the Aerosmith cover of this piercing track. If John hadn’t envisioned it for The Beatles he might have handed it to Steven Tyler (to be fair, the Earth, Wind, and Fire cover of “Got to Get You into My Life” is the only other decent tune to come out of that movie, but I digress).

All You Need Is Love (1967)

As if it weren’t enough for it to be a perfect anthem for the 1960s and every decade to follow, this beautiful tune debuted on one of the first global satellite TV broadcasts of all time, adding science to art to a community be-in that included Mick Jagger and Eric Clapton sitting on the floor. It also was well placed as the denouement resolution to the Yellow Submarine movie in lovingly crushing the Blue Meanies. Love, love, love.

Eleanor Rigby (1966)

“Ah, look at all the lonely people.” Yeah, on many days I’m one of them. When I was in high school the lyrics to this song somehow appeared in our poetry anthology. It was one of the more controversial classroom moments I can remember as a young student of literature and music, and I never forgot it. The question posed in English class was how to differentiate the contemporary (where the root word is “temporary”) from the canon worthy of poetic study. I wondered why that was important. I still do. “Eleanor Rigby” still makes the canon for me.

“Abbey Road Medley” (1969)

As I wrestled with the rest of the catalogue, I honestly couldn’t come up with a tenth song. I argued with myself and couldn’t find a way to win. I know it’s cheating, but I settled on the Abbey Road Medley, which is technically up to eight songs that begin with “You Never Give Me Your Money” and close with “The End.” Some people think it starts five songs later with “Golden Slumbers” and “Carry That Weight,” which is the shorter version Paul has been playing in his latest live tours as an encore. Regardless, it’s a powerful collection that spans the band’s musicality from rhythm solo to storytelling to full orchestration. It finishes big as a rocker. It’s how a lot of people remember the band coming to an end, myself included.

Agree, disagree, or want to chime in? I’m all ears, and always up for a good Beatles chat. Let me hear from you. Pretty soon these 50th anniversaries will have expired and we won’t have such a good excuse.

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Photo: Freda Kelly circa 1962 (a gift to the author)

Is Facebook the Next AOL?

 

I used to like AOL. Back in the day we called it by its full name, America Online. Prior to the broad penetration of the Internet, it was how we connected with each other. It was the company we paid on a subscription basis for both access to digital connectivity and content. For the ownership of AOL, it was a very, very good business, so explosive that it frightened the old guard in media and was merged into an even bigger entity, AOL Time Warner. If you were born after that wildly failed merger, it is difficult to convey just how powerful and influential AOL had become. Truth be told, I still have an active AOL account and get teased about that by friends. I wound it so tightly into my life it is still hard to completely unwind despite its deterioration.

I also like Facebook. As an individual enamored with words, I find it an irresistible way to communicate with a circle of acquaintances on everything from politics and social causes to MLB, The Beatles, wine, and business opportunities. As an author of fiction, I find it an essential tool to communicate with readers, let them know a new book is coming, tie that book into news of the day, and connect all of that with the monthly postings on my blog. Another confession: I was one of the earliest adopters of Facebook over the age of 40, invited for business reasons to create an account back when it required a .edu email to become a member. Companies I’ve led have been active buyers of advertising on Facebook at every stage of its evolution. Yet even with all that passion, I have been an ardent critic of Facebook. It reminds me of AOL. I hope it won’t suffer the same fate.

Is it alarmist to think that Facebook could collapse at the level of AOL simply because of its latest data breaches? Yes, I think that would be overstating the calamity of its current situation, and if Facebook does implode, it will likely be a slow and painful process much like AOL with a long-tail legacy business lingering into the digital future. I am not predicting that will happen. I am suggesting that it could if Facebook does not radically rethink its business in real time and take immediate action to course correct.

I am not specifically reacting to the gross abuse of Facebook’s members by Cambridge Analytica, but if ever there was a wake-up call to Mark Zuckerberg this bell is tolling awfully loudly. The sound of that alarm is the crying out of customers reminding the leadership of Facebook that they are not users as the descriptor goes, but human beings who have chosen to enter into a relationship with a brand. As I have mentioned here many times before, a brand is not a logo, a brand is a promise. When that promise is violated, all bets are off for the future of the brand. I believe AOL broke its promises way too many times and then sadly faded away. Facebook is now breaking many of its promises, real or presumed, and if the leadership there doesn’t do something material about it soon, they are rolling the dice against fate.

Here are the three most obvious areas of overlap I see between Facebook and AOL, and how addressing them now aggressively might change the course of history for the social network that changed our lives in the last generation much as the online access ramp that carpet-bombed the nation changed it in the previous generation.

DUMP THE MVP

I am at odds with many of my colleagues on the topic of “minimum viable product,” but I have always vastly disliked the MVP acronym and concept. I know how much Silicon Valley treasures the notion of The Lean Startup, and I suppose if a fast path to cash generation is primarily a company’s goal, a crappy first-generation product bounced off a wave of early adopters who will offer critique could make business sense. Because I favor brand development over fast monetization, I have never bought into the whole idea of “moving fast and breaking things.”

How did Facebook get into this fix with inexplicable amounts of customer data being exploited? Top management didn’t take the time to fully think through the implications of their product decisions. Likewise, AOL was legendary for releasing updates that crashed our computers and often made it impossible to even log onto the system. MVP is a shortcut that disrespects customers. Build excellent products tested thoroughly before deployment, and customer trust will compound rather than be wagered.

LEAVE SOME MONEY ON THE TABLE

AOL came to love hammering our screens with advertisements. We got them at sign-on, with our email, with instant messaging, with our stock listings, with our sports scores. The ad insertions were ceaseless and endless. When it was the onramp to connectivity we were already paying a monthly fee for the privilege of being an advertising target, but this additional banquet of media cash was a renewable feast of dots and spots. With so many eyeballs and so little competition they also assaulted advertisers with ever-increasing campaign rates.

Today on Facebook it isn’t quite that aggressive, but it’s getting there. What’s worse, the advertising depends on crawling through our personal profiles to target ads with astonishing performance response. The media business is certainly a game of haves and have-nots, but company leaders have to keep their eyes on the prize. Does the company think its demise is inevitable and thus seek to exploit its visitors with endless badgering? Or can it modulate the experience to show us a reasonable number of ads that are relevant but not beyond our comfort levels of intrusion?

SUSTAIN AN AUTHENTIC MISSION

Here we return to the luster or disposability of a brand, to the ability to make a promise and deliver on it consistently in the face of day-to-day business realities and financial opportunism. AOL’s stated mission was “to build a global medium as central to people’s lives as the telephone or television… and even more valuable.” AOL actually didn’t do that—the internet itself obviated its driving purpose—but rather than build on the goodwill of its access brand and attempt to enhance the customer experience through creativity, the company sought to keep customers in a “walled garden” and intervene in easy access to the open internet. Customers soon enough revolted and left in droves.

Facebook’s initial mission was “to make the world more open and connected.” That mission more recently has been revised “to give people the power to build community and bring the world closer together.” Those are both lofty ideals. The question is whether Zuckerberg had the maturity to comprehend the implications of what path his company’s technology cut through the landscape as a result. Of course it seems like a great idea to be closer to our friends and meet new people along the way, but if that compromises our privacy and personal security, is it worth it? Who gets to decide that? I can’t navigate Facebook’s privacy tree and I work in the medium. If its brand offers us a lasting promise of sharing and collaboration, does it also offer any guarantees of protection? If not, then we arrive at the cynical conclusion: “If we aren’t paying for the product, we are the product.” If a company wants to build a brand for the long-term, that’s simply not a sustainable value proposition.

I would guess if AOL founder Steve Case had it to do over again things would have been different at his once pioneering enterprise. It was a younger audience that first championed AOL, but his demographics didn’t stay young as the massive brand quickly lost its cool factor. Facebook is already seeing a similar demographic shift as its relevance with younger customers is waning, ceding that excitement to newer brands. I wonder if Zuckerberg will someday have the same regrets as Case or if he will find a way to shift gears with thundering resonance and reinvent his company to achieve a greater destiny.

The answer isn’t in testifying before Congress, any more than it is about inescapable government regulation. The answer is in balancing business success against the real human needs of customers, about making a promise and keeping it, about building a brand that stands for something more than the dollars it attracts. Innovation is both challenging and valuable. Trust is much harder and worth so much more.

The Emergent Miracle of 50

Were popular songs from 1918 played widely in 1968?

How about songs from 1928 in 1978?

Or songs from 1938 in 1988?

So how come songs from 1968 are still widely played in 2018?

Want to know why? Here are ten songs from the top of the charts in 1968, from the Billboard Hot 100 of that year:

“Hey Jude” by The Beatles (#1).

“Sunshine of Your Love” by Cream (#6).

“Mrs. Robinson” by Simon and Garfunkel (#9).

“Mony Mony” by Tommy James and the Shondells (#13).

“Dance to the Music” by Sly and the Family Stone (#20).

“Born to Be Wild” by Steppenwolf (#31).

“Jumpin’ Jack Flash” by The Rolling Stones (#50).

“Light My Fire” by Jose Feliciano (#52).

“Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing” by Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell (#57).

“I Say a Little Prayer for You” by Aretha Franklin (#93).

I don’t think I need to write any more words today. The point proves itself. We don’t need to know why. The songs speak for themselves. They sing for themselves. Our attachment is primal, mystical, enduring.

Given the fifty years between the 1960s and the 2010s, not a day goes by that we don’t celebrate the 50th anniversary of something, for many of us our own time on the earth.

Last year we celebrated the 50th anniversary of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. This year it’s The White Album.

The Rolling Stones already have a 50 and Counting tour on their resume. Last year Fleetwood Mac hit 50 and headlined The Classic West and East stadium tours alongside iconic peers the Eagles, Doobie Brothers, Steely Dan, Journey, and Earth, Wind, & Fire.

Paul McCartney will likely tour until he can no longer stand on the stage. Ringo is still regularly on the road with his All-Starr Band.  You’ll remember that The Beatles led The British Invasion shortly after the Kennedy assassination. Yes, “all those years ago!”

So what is the endurance factor of what we now call classic rock? Is it simply that the baby boomers who shepherded these bands in youthful acts of defiance are living a lot longer? There might be something to that, but it doesn’t explain why so many millennials are subscribing to the same Spotify channels as their parents.

Certainly improvements in studio and consumer technology have made it easier to preserve and share high-quality recordings of later eras, but the conduit of access is a mechanical bridge, not an emotional path to replay. Variety shows on television in the 1960s and 1970s harkened back to songs of prior times, but not with the same urgency, devotion, or pervasiveness. The sheer volume of fifty-year-old songs populating playlists across age groups today tells us that “something’s happening here.”

Walk into a downtown bar or hotel lounge and you might be as likely to hear a cover band playing “Suzie Q” (Creedence Clearwater Revival, #97 in 1968) as you are anything from Bruno Mars or Beyoncé. I’m not suggesting every roadhouse on the highway basks in nostalgia, but when you walk into a live club and hear “Hello, I Love You” (The Doors, #14 in 1968) little about it seems dated or out of place. Of course there is an entire segment of the population who couldn’t care less about fifty-year-old relics, but the fans who forever revel in these not-so-ancient hits will stay up all night on the dance floor as long as the song list rolls.

It’s the music. It was good fifty years ago and it’s good today. For many who loved the music when it first hit the airways, this is the soundtrack of our lives. We love it, we love the memories that come with it, we love the way it makes us feel. We are silly enough to believe it keeps us young, and we want to share the beat with anyone who can’t sit still once the guitar licks begin pouring from the stage.

It doesn’t matter if that stage is a tiny corner platform in a pizza joint or a grand proscenium dragged into Dodger Stadium. We love the famous original acts when they are on the road, but we also love the young house bands who take the time to learn to play the hits well and then sneak in an original song of their own.

We love the occasional current star who braves an interpretation of a long-ago track (Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower” covered by Devlin with Ed Sheeran is mighty powerful material). We love the new beside the old. We feel those classic rock tunes as part of our being, whether live, broadcast, streamed, satellite transmitted, or silently resonant in our minds.

Surely there is context to consider in a half-century of resilience, the voices of youth and diversity fighting for equal footing with established authority in the latter half of the twentieth century. Yet context doesn’t make a pop song last. Composition does. Performance does. Texture does. Maybe artists under contract just got better at the whole Tin Pan Alley game. Maybe they started to care as much about their legacy as their commercial acumen. Maybe connecting the generations came to mean more to them than the hunger for flowing cash. Well, maybe.

I’ve been thinking and writing about these songs most of my life, linking them to stories and plays, stitching their lyrics into the fabric of modern and historical philosophy. I’m never quite satisfied with the words I choose to explain why this music matters to me as much as it does. I suppose the songs are an organic whole without explanation. As so many of the young artists declared of their work when it was created, it was never meant to be analyzed. The songs were meant to be felt.

That doesn’t adequately address why this half-century is different, and why people like me believe so many of these songs are not likely to evaporate from the earth when we are no longer here to listen to them. The magic has emerged without anyone showing how the trick is done. That’s probably because the magicians don’t know how they did the trick.

It’s probably better that way. It keeps things authentic.

Keep listening. Keep embracing the beat. Feel young and stay young. You know I will—with any luck for another fifty years.

 

You Can’t Fix Morale

Here’s a phone call I sometimes receive, usually from someone senior in executive management or the investment team behind a once promising company:

Inquirer: Hey, we need your help with something. We have a situation and we’re not sure what to do about it.

Me: Sounds intriguing. What is the situation?

Inquirer: Well, we’re having… I’m not sure what you would call it exactly, I guess a problem with morale.

Me: What would you like me to do?

Inquirer: We would like you to help us fix morale.

Me: Oh, that. I’m sorry, I can’t help you.

Inquirer: We haven’t spoken two minutes and you already know that?

Me: Yes, I’m quite sure. I certainly would like to take your money because I’m sure you are willing to pay a lot to do something about this, but I only take on projects where I can actually help someone.

Inquirer: How can you be so sure?

Me: You can’t fix morale.

Inquirer: What do you mean? Morale gets fixed all the time.

Me: Yes, exactly. Morale gets fixed because whatever is causing it to deteriorate gets fixed, but that is where you need to look, at the disease, not a symptom.

Inquirer: Are you saying we need to fix something else in our company so that maybe it can have an impact on morale?

Me: Yes, that is what I am saying. In fact, you probably need to fix your company.

Inquirer: So a contract to fix morale is not big enough for you? You want a bigger contract to fix our company? But our company is not broken.

Me: Then you probably don’t have a morale problem and don’t need any help.

Inquirer: You’re not doing yourself any favors turning this down. It’s a big project. We have a sizeable budget for it.

Me: It’s tempting, but why don’t you have another look at the situation and maybe we can talk again.

The call usually ends there and we don’t talk again. Every once in a while we do talk again and then I tend to get involved in long stretches of dialogue with team members up and down the line. We talk about a lot of things: leadership talent, product quality, business model. We talk about creativity and innovation, passion for excellence, dedication to the customer experience. One of the things we never talk about is trying to fix morale.

Let me say it again: You can’t fix morale.

Bad morale is a byproduct, most often of poor direction, sometimes of impossible goals so ridiculous no one ever feels appreciated, other times of uneven credit and compensation in times of success. There are successful companies with good and bad morale, and struggling companies with good and bad morale. Good morale is also a byproduct — you achieve it by focusing on the right things.

I view morale as a result of process and outcomes. Process involves day-to-day workplace routines that reinforce or strip away employee engagement. Outcomes involve the continuity or deadend at the culmination of a milestone, the reward or repudiation for the commitment of time, expertise, or passion. If your process is bad, morale will be bad. If your outcomes are bad, morale will be bad.

Suppose your company wildly missed earnings targets three quarters in a row. You’ve seen your second round of layoffs in less than two years. More than half of your VPs were fired and hired in the past ten months. The CEO, also rumored to be teetering, has said repeatedly everyone needs to “work smarter, not harder,” but no one is sure which product in the pipeline is going to carry the day. Employee morale as you would expect is rotten all around you. Your colleagues are irritable and nasty. Every week someone you like leaves the company for another gig.

Let’s look at some options for addressing this:

  1. The company hires a consultant to run a survey on employee satisfaction and weeks after you fill out your survey they find out what everyone knew before the survey: Morale stinks like a decaying carcass. The CEO announces Fridays will be half days, the company will be publishing a weekly newsletter celebrating its best employees, and all VPs and above will be taking classes in how to write better reviews and talk nicely to their teams. Everyone is told he or she is appreciated and reminded to work smarter, not harder.
  2. The company holds an executive offsite where all the VPs get to articulate everything that is wrong with the company. The VPs report back to their teams that the CEO agrees, there are not enough resources in the company to go around, the timelines for deliverable are insane, and the competition has an edge on the industry that is daunting. Starting today you will have realistic goals, more resources, flexible timelines, and as long as everyone is doing their best, then management will back off and be satisfied.
  3. The CEO pulls together a half-dozen of the best minds in the company to conduct an honest post-mortem of why the company’s strategy is failing. That team then strips away all the derivative efforts that are draining resources from the company’s true mission and recommits to a narrowed product strategy that capitalizes on the company’s identified competitive advantage. The CEO then directs the executive team to align the best talent in the company with key roles on the narrowed agenda and hire new talent where mediocrity is being tolerated, then communicates the new plan to the full company in verbal and written detail, not just in an inspiring kickoff speech but in regular progress updates that are candid and coherent.

You might think the answer is obvious, but sadly it is not — especially to less experienced management teams where too many influential individuals have achieved authority through battlefield promotions. Here we are talking the bedrock of directing process and refocusing outcomes. Good process takes a lifetime to learn. Steering through outcomes whether planned or unplanned requires a deft touch. There are no shortcuts. If you don’t have the energy or commitment to take apart process and outcomes one building block at a time, you have little shot at repairing morale.

I often ask people to share with me whether they have had a single good manager in their careers. You would be surprised how many say no. In fact these days it is the rare exception of people who actually rave about a boss from the past and talk about how they are putting that learning to work. The ones who are tend to have fewer morale problems on their hands. Too many leaders’ lives are filled with morale problems because they haven’t learned how to steer past them.

Now think about all those unicorns out there — you know, the 150 or so privately funded startup companies currently valued at $1B or more. Those should be some of the happiest places in the world for people to work, big idea places filled with promise and hope for future riches. Go take a random walk through those gardens on Glassdoor. You might be surprised at what you find. They have a lot of problems. When the majority of them are unable to achieve liquidity for their option holders, they will have even more. With that will come a wave of demoralization sweeping through employee workstations. How would you go about fixing that?

You can fix a product. You can’t fix a byproduct. Fix what’s wrong in your company, not the normal human emotional reaction to what’s wrong in your company.

You certainly can fix engagement. You fix engagement through authentic vision, brilliant product design, and a rallying cry around consistent execution. Fix engagement and morale fixes itself.

Align the finest talent you can identify with challenging projects that allow them to do the best work of their careers. Keep an eye on process. Celebrate outcomes and share the wealth. Be generous with people who are meaningfully contributing to company success. Morale will be swell and you’ll have bragging rights to let everyone around you know what a great environment you’ve created for the next wave of outcomes.

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Image: Dilbert.com ©Scott Adams