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

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Rediscovering Civility

Last month I wrote briefly about the fallacy of the upper hand. The responses I received from people navigating similar bouts of forced will remind me how not normal our lives remain. Over the past year and a half, many employees have learned to work remotely, and to some the routine of working from home is now its own form of normalcy. At the same time, we are increasingly returning to the workplace and trying to adjust to the structure of sharing a space with colleagues and strangers for a third of each day.

To assume everyone can walk back into the workplace and public spaces without some enhanced focus on conduct seems to me naïve. Human beings are certainly adaptable, but I worry that we might be presuming a level of adaptability that confuses the comfort zone of individuals with the smooth functioning of collective interests. You’ve no doubt heard about the outbreaks of passenger rage on commercial flights. They are not as isolated as we might want to believe.

Covid-19 has taken away a lot of daily practice from our interactions. It’s not just that it is easy to forget how different it is to interact in person than it is to communicate through electronic platforms. Talking into screens is not a fully rendered substitute for being together. We have developed habits in our physical solitude that have taught us to be effective in doing what is expected of us, but some of those habits may not make the most of opportunities to emerge with a broader purpose. We may find it easier to behave in certain ways when we are alone than when we are together, and bridging those geographies may not be as simple as flexible switching between environments in what many now label as hybrid work.

There is more to the next generation workplace than where we do what we do. There is a mindset I think we need to share—a set of shared values—that seems to me more traditional than circumstantial. If we want to adapt to new paradigms for interacting, perhaps the rules governing those interactions are agnostic to place. It seems critical with the perpetual noise around us that as we adjust to the new back-to-work standards we insist on a standard of decency in our endeavors.

In recommitting to an extraordinary standard of civility, here are four simple pillars I would expect of myself and others.

Tell the Truth

When I say tell the truth, I mean all the time. It’s easy to tell the truth when it is what others want to hear and it avoids controversy. It is much harder to tell the truth when we have made a mistake, when data is being manipulated by someone in authority, or when the cost of that truth is one’s own popularity. The problem with honesty is that it can’t be a tool of convenience. We must tell the truth not because there is penalty if we don’t, but because we cannot universally insist on it from others if we don’t stand by the promise that it is inarguable. Understand what is empirical and fully embrace integrity. Silence when the truth is known is not a noble dodge, it is another form of mistruth.

Your Name Belongs to You

Unless one’s life is at risk for civil rights abuses, most of what people author anonymously is cowardly. We can argue the difference between old media and new media is the presence of an editor creating an artificial funnel on access to audience, but one of those old school norms was the expectation in authorship of identity. We should write with a by-line, with our name associated with our thoughts, and with our style of verbal and written communication enhanced by our ownership of that expression. You have only one good name. Protect it through accuracy, clarity, absence of pointless invective, and even if eloquence is beyond reach, at least frame the deliberate use of language in a context that is purposeful.

Manners Matter

We can stand on our authority, or we can strive to get people on our side. It has never been clearer to me that style is content, that the outcome we are trying to achieve is inextricably linked to the form of our argument. Approach those around you with respect and there is a much higher chance they might be interested in the thought behind the point you are making rather than just the interpretation of their role in the outcome. Avoid the opportunity to build consensus at your own peril, but even when you must deliver the top-down tiebreaker, do it with finesse, restricting the hammer to the impossible sell. The Golden Rule survives the centuries because some ideals do make sense even when we fail ceaselessly to take them seriously. Hear the words you are saying. Would they get you encouraged, inspired, and onboard?

Think Long

Survivors know that careers can last or not. The yes you got today—the yes that was so important you worked tirelessly for months to hear—is as fleeting as any other decision in the moment. Short-term action without a long-term framework is a high-risk gamble. Telling a half-truth might get you to the end of the week. Cleverly masking your name from an unpopular report might get you through the review cycle. Effectively bullying a coworker might swing a lost debate to your advantage. All of those will cost you. Steve Jobs used to talk about brand deposits and brand withdrawals. You need both in balance to build a lasting brand—to establish and reinforce a credible promise. You can’t make deposits and withdrawals at random and go “up and to the right” repeatedly without a plan. The winning strategy when others are winging it is to think long.

Welcome to the new world. Sounds a lot like the old world, only with less commuting. Count me in.

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Photo: Pixabay

5 Brief Quotes That Keep Me Thinking

Are we turning the corner on a new day of reinvention and reinvigoration, or are we swapping one set of enormously complicated challenges for another?

I’ve been thinking about that a lot as Covid-19 vaccinations are welcomed by increasingly more people and the doors to a rejuvenated nation continue to open at an encouraging pace. Still, it’s hard to ignore that much of the conflict that existed in the pre-Covid world remains in the post-Covid world.

The economy is rebounding with optimism in investment, yet income inequality is as deeply embedded in our interactions as it has ever been. High profile convictions for the abuse of power have been handed down, yet racial injustice remains in the daily headlines. International travel is resuming, yet lives are being lost in battles across and within borders.

We remain too often divided and find little in the way of broad consensus that will adequately address sustainable remedies. Has the world learned anything from Covid-19, or are we picking up where we left off?

On days that are difficult to explain, I find myself looking to tiny bits of wisdom that keep me inspired and focused in good times, bad times, and when I can’t tell the difference. Here are five fragments I keep top of mind that I hope you will find perennial and inexhaustible.

“A life is not important except in the impact it has on other lives.” — Jackie Robinson

Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in Major League Baseball. He had every reason to be a pessimist given the treatment he endured, yet he was a fighter of the most noble order and seems to me a true optimist. He had a gift that he transformed into a cause. He led by example. He teaches me there is no other way to lead than by example.

“It’s kind of fun to do the impossible.” — Walt Disney

Walt Disney was another optimist, but in a different way. He focused on pushing the imagination to unimaginable bounds. He knew beyond all financial gain that our aspirations live in our dreams, and that our stories are mirrors of our souls. He teaches me there is creativity in all of us, and nurturing that expression is essential to our fulfillment.

“All we are saying is give peace a chance.” — John Lennon

John Lennon expressed this in lyrics, so when I hear it, it is more music than words. Is it pointlessly naïve to think after centuries of combat, conquering, and attack we can make the active choice to seek peace as he suggests? To think less seems to me impossibly cynical. He teaches me that hope is at the root of getting past the seduction of old ways, and those old ways find a terrible way of repeatedly deceiving us.

“How wonderful it is that nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world.” — Anne Frank

Anne Frank left the world much too soon and in the unfairest of ways, yet it is the majesty of her child’s voice that reminds us initiative to improve is always within our grasp. Her courage holds the uplifting power to bypass the contaminants of cruelty in favor of a bias toward action. She teaches me that no matter the debilitating obstacles confronting our values, we must remain true to a commitment to heal the world.

“One voice can change a room.” — Barack Obama

Barack Obama is the one person quoted here who is still alive, tirelessly active in his advocacy for our shared wellness. He remains a controversial figure and his impact on our world will be debated long after his poetic voice passes into history. He often cites another of my favorite quotes around the arc of the moral universe. He teaches me there is intrinsic reward in tackling audacious goals, and that where progress may appear thin, there is ever more necessity in maintaining navigation toward a North Star.

That’s a lot to invoke in relatively few words. I have another batch of these I may share at a later date, and of course I would love to hear the words that inspire you in these ambivalent times. The concise wisdom of others is often enough to help us make a better decision, sculpt a bad choice into an improved choice, or just fire up our engines when fuel is hidden from our view. As I get older, I seldom see the obvious clarity I once anticipated would always reveal itself.

Sometimes you have to Think Different. Sometimes you have to think harder. Sometimes a little listening helps us discover the path beyond the noise.

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Photo: Pixabay

Why We Should Give More

Give!
It’s that time of year for me, another trip around the sun complete. This one is not quite a milestone count, but as good a time as any to reflect on purpose. Age will do that to you. We don’t get to reflect indefinitely. That which goes into our permanent record is anything but limitless.

Covid-19 will soon pass into history, but not its devastation. The time it has given us to think about our uses of time may be one of its few constructive legacies

Do we look externally for validation or is it intrinsic? What is a job well done? Are we meant to behave as survivalists with a primary worry of self or something different?

Giving is a curious notion. Perhaps it presents a choice that is inescapable. We do or we don’t. We make a choice even if we don’t make a choice.

I do wonder at length why we give. It’s easy to be conned and give wrong. The charlatans and traps outnumber our investigative hours. The risk of being fooled is an occupational hazard. I’ve made peace with that.

Here’s one good reason to take the risk and give: When we believe in others, we reinforce their courage to believe in themselves. When we share compassion with others, we demonstrate that compassion is possible and can be a virtuous circle.

We are directed to welcome the stranger. Soon after that our bond becomes our gift.

I find myself increasingly thinking about the notion of fairness. I do believe the arc of the moral universe bends toward justice, but I find the pace of alteration lethargic and unsatisfying. Are things better than they were 50 years ago? My father says yes and he has a 40% premium on years of observation to mine so I’ll go with his affirmation, but better is not the same as good. Relative unfairness is still unfairness.

Black Lives Matter shows us conclusively that the application of law is unfair. Two and a half million dead globally of coronavirus shows us that the availability of healthcare is unfair. The wealth of stock market gains for the few against the lost jobs and bankrupt businesses of many is almost violently unfair. Unfairness is not solvable. It is at best addressable through personal generosity and accessible charity.

Woke isn’t working. The Dr. Seuss debate was not a debate at all. A company for its own reasons decided to exercise copyright authority and stop selling certain books. It has that right. That is not book banning. No government or autocratic mandate was issued. If you still want for some reason to read these books they remain available at libraries, specialty stores, or in digital form.

I find the debate around capitalism equally disingenuous. If you think you have reason to storm the Capitol because socialism is coming for your freedom, you are deluded. There are no pure forms of economy. They are all mixes of this and that, some weighing more heavily in one direction or another, but always open to reversion by market forces.

Likewise, any cheesy rhetoric that would seek to undermine capitalism in the extreme is pointless. Free enterprise has created unbounded benefits for billions. No, it is not equally or fairly distributed. There aren’t enough recognized referees in the rough and tumble. Policies that ensure ardent competition inspire innovation with incentive compensation. That kind of moderate regulation protects our livelihoods and drives imaginative initiatives without useless polarization.

If you’re really worried about economic instability, worry about runaway income inequality. Without thriving buyers and broad access to manageable credit, there is little need for growth in sellers.

I am both beneficiary and critic of our system. If you’ve worked with me or read any of my books, you know I am not shy or apologetic about this.

I love our nation. I love free enterprise. I love working hard.

I despise exploitation. I despise greed. I despise arrogance and lack of humility.

Hegelian dialectic has taught me these head-banging notions can co-exist.

I love the impossible challenge, the learning that comes from failure, the teamwork of a shared victory overcoming competitors and naysayers.

I despise the selfishness, self-congratulations, and coldness that comes when we fail to recognize that too many trusting, hopeful, well-meaning individuals tirelessly try in their own way to navigate daunting obstacles, but often end up with little or nothing.

I believe we begin to bridge the gap by giving. We can give our time and attention. We can give money. We can give opportunity. We can give understanding and empathy.

As it becomes clear that there are fewer trips around the sun ahead of me than there are behind me, I find myself retreating to the existential. I find less meaning, reason, and justification in fairness than I hoped I might find at this age. At the same crossroads, I see time as more precious and commitment to social justice more urgent. I know I can’t fix much, but where I can have a slight impact, time is increasingly shorter.

I think perhaps we give to beat the clock. We can see a life change before our eyes because of something caring we do, but we have to endeavor to do it.

We give because all forms of faith suggest it is our duty. We don’t have to agree on spiritual reckoning to have this in common. We don’t have to believe in anything more than the tangible world we see to know we are expected to do something unexpectedly selfless with the disproportionate gifts we are awarded.

It is our calling to repair the world. Civilization will remain conflicted and in conflict, because human beings are imperfect, troubled, fundamentally flawed while evolving. That doesn’t give us a get-out-of-jail-free card. Existential does not have to mean cynical. It can mean we are empowered to consider the unfairness around us as a challenge to be met, an uneven distribution of pain to be healed, a sense of acknowledgment if not quite purpose.

We give to be more complete.

We give to be part of a whole that has been shattered by our own achievements.

We give because the math suggests there is little other way to balance a scale that assures us history will maintain its imbalance.

We give to combat rhetoric, indifference, and convenient but incomplete argument.

We give because justification is not justice, and because words will always fail us.

We give to remind ourselves we are human, and we have no choice to be anything otherwise.

Whatever necessary mission that elevates your imagination, whatever human cause that fuels your passion, consider increasing your commitment. No, it’s not a carbon offset, it’s not retiring guilt, it’s not a debt you owe or a pledge against salvation.

It’s the right thing to do, to whatever extent you can. It’s not hypocritical and it’s not posturing. It’s how you can be more dimensionally human.

An investment in your belief set is a pact with yourself. The outcomes of your contribution can carry you many more times around the sun with reason to renew your journey. Stay honest, stay measured, stay authentic. That distant, mythic, flickering light at the end of the tunnel has cascading spectrum to shine on you.

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Photo: Pexels