Tavis and Maya

Tavis and MayaEvery year the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books continues to cement itself in my psyche as a major go-to event. Now the largest book fair in the United States, its bustling aisles fill the USC campus for two days with eager authors and insatiable readers. Each year I joyously look forward to attending, not just for the schedule of talks I plan to experience, but for the inevitable surprises I discover. This year’s surprise was an exceptionally powerful book talk on an open-air stage by Tavis Smiley about his lifetime of interaction with Maya Angelou.

Although I have not yet read Smiley’s new book, My Journey with Maya, my takeaway from the forty-five minutes my wife and I listened to him speak was profound enough to report here as a stand-alone inspiration. Smiley talked openly and honestly about how he personally crashed and burned after a failed election campaign for Los Angeles City Council following a gig on the staff of Mayor Tom Bradley. With a mountain of campaign debt crushing him, he was to be evicted from his apartment with no prospect of employment. A friend arranged a happenstance job for him to travel with Angelou on a brief trip to Africa as an assistant, mostly to carry luggage. That kicked off a lifelong friendship and dialogue between them where they didn’t always agree, but Smiley always found a way to learn.

I’m going to read the book and I hope you will as well, so I won’t go into a lot of detail here on all he said. What I want to share are the two most striking learnings from Angelou that Smiley encoded, largely because they have been stuck in my head and churning ever since we stood there in the sunshine listening to him. I have only seen Smiley a few times on television over the years, but standing in front of him, hearing his passion, listening to the heartfelt words that flowed from his inner being completely coherently without any notes or podium, I was moved completely by the sweat and memory that poured from his soul. The two ideas that Angelou planted for growth in his brain couldn’t have been more relevant to me than if I’d heard her say them to me herself. As far as I am concerned, I think I did hear her speak on both counts, channeled in full energy by his voice calling on hers:

“Baby, we find our path by walking it.”

“Sometimes rejection is redirection.”

If you think those are just broad, sweeping, generic statements of advice from the elevated dais, stop here and go read someone else’s reflection, or perhaps today’s stock market results. On the other hand, if you’re like me, copy those words onto a Post-it and put them in plain sight for the next decade or so. When Maya speaks, it’s a good idea to listen. Tavis did, and his life was reinvented.

I write a lot on this blog and in my books about resilience and reinvention, the lifeblood of innovation. When I heard Smiley put the notion of self-motivation in so few words from Angelou, I was heartened, invigorated, and inspired. She got it. He got it. I wish everyone could get it. And still, transferring the words of others into action is immensely difficult, filled with pain, buried in setbacks, and only on the most wondrous of occasions celebrated in brief victories.

Smiley was adrift after losing his election and identity in public service. He sat stunned and stared at the failed image of himself. He wanted desperately to reinvent, but had no idea how. He was frozen. Angelou saw through him to his core. “Baby, we find our path by walking it.” If it had been a Nike commercial saying “Just do it,” it couldn’t have been clearer advice: Just do something. Do anything that matters to you. Find thought in action, not in dire contemplation. Whatever you do is better than nothing, and it will inevitably lead somewhere. Sometimes I tell people to form a plan—a conceptual roadmap of any kind—not because you will follow the path from here to there, but because if you start with a map, you will go somewhere, and that has to be better than nowhere. You won’t connect the dots—the dots will connect themselves in ways you never could have imagined. Yes, you find your path by walking it. Get busy. The rest will be discovered when you least expect it.

Smiley was crushed because the electorate said no to him. He wanted to serve, but the voters said “no thanks.” Again Angelou saw motivation in the otherwise unfortunate result. “Sometimes rejection is redirection.” If the voting public did not wish to recognize Smiley as an elected official, was that the only way he could realize his dreams? Obviously not, because a few years later Angelou appeared as a guest on Smiley’s national PBS talk show. How about that? From apartment eviction to the interviewer’s chair in so little time you almost think he made the whole thing up. He didn’t. He listened. He accepted “no” as meaning “not now, not here.” Then he went another way, and his dreams were realized beyond all imagination. Can it happen to you? Yes, if you see the negative before you as motivation to go another way. That new way might be a million times more fulfilling than what you thought was your only way. We have no only way, just opportunity to be who we need to be in an as-yet undiscovered path.

Both of these precepts have been guiding lights in my own life, yet until I heard Tavis channel Maya in an unplanned walk by the stage where he happened to be speaking when I was on my way to another place, I wasn’t aware how much I shared with so many others there on the grass listening intently to every word. Maybe we are more similar than different. Maybe we all do share the same dreams of enrichment and fulfillment. Maybe if we all listen to each other a little more closely, we can help each other get from the stagnant to the unstoppable. To quote another dreamer, “Imagine.”

I sure do love the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books. I can’t wait until my walking path takes me back there next year for another dose of redirection. See you under the tents. I’ll be the guy taking copious notes, or maybe talking ideas if you start the conversation.

The Ins and Outs of Yahoo!

Shortly after it was announced that Yahoo CEO Carol Bartz was departing, the always funny Andy Borowitz tweeted:

“The CEO of Yahoo just resigned. I had never heard of her so I Googled her.”

What makes any great comic funny is the truth underlying a punchline.  I wonder if Andy knew just how close he got on this one, which was reported by the Los Angeles Times.  What Andy points to in far fewer words than I will use is precisely the problem of what went wrong at Yahoo.  Yahoo was one of the three great search engines still standing on the web as late as 2009, in fact it was #2 behind Google and ahead of Bing (a.k.a. Microsoft).  Search was in Yahoo’s DNA, it was a core competency, Yahoo was very good at Search and a tremendous amount of self-selected traffic still flowed through Yahoo Search (Microsoft noticed this, too).

Remember that Yahoo bought Overture in 2003, the pioneer of text-link keyword advertising, and honed paid search advertising as mainstream before Google took it to perfection.  Remember also that Yahoo helped put Google on the map when for a long period of time it outsourced Search to Google in exchange for “Powered By” credit and revenue sharing — a business development deal it later regretted because that little “Powered By” logo pretty much put the Google brand on the global map.  At the end of that deal in 2004, Yahoo took Search back and went on to be a respectable competitor to Google.  Sure its Panama search ad buying system upgrade was a little late to market, but it was also very good.

I have great misgivings about the notion of Monday morning quarterbacking any fellow CEO’s performance, since no one on the outside of any problem ever has enough detail or information to make a well-reasoned assessment of someone else’s decision-making. In the case of Yahoo, I offer this personal observation only for the lessons that I believe need to be evangelized.

Early in her tenure, Carol Bartz made a decision to outsource Search and the text ad auction platform to Microsoft. Her rationale seemed to make sense in the savings she would achieve, but that presumed there was no growth left in Search, which had become dominated by Google to the tune of 65% market share, the remaining share going to Yahoo and Bing.  We all know that Microsoft was spending heavily to gain share, up to and including offering to buy Yahoo for more than $44B.  This post is not about that decision, nor does it have anything to do with the circumstances or theatrics of Bartz’s departure.  It has to do with one and only one thing, my own opinion that the decision for Yahoo to exit Search was not a good decision.  Here is why:

In any company, you strike a balance between what you build and what you buy.  Every senior executive and management team struggles with this every day.  No company — not one of the Fortune 500 companies, not the one person startup in your garage — has all the resources to do everything it wants to do or needs to do.  Management must make tradeoffs, sometimes hourly.  Talent is not unlimited, access to capital is not unlimited, time is anything but unlimited.  Management has to decide what it will build and what it will buy.  Will a company hire talent, buy another company, or outsource a task?  These questions never go away, thus management always needs a framework for making these decisions without guesswork or emotion.  Here in a nutshell is that framework:

You in-source that which is strategic — that which is vital and essential and defining to a company’s success in the landscape of its peers.

You outsource that which is tactical — that which is non-essential to the company’s definition in its chosen competitive space

Let’ start with the basics: an intellectual property company — whether technology based, media based, or design based — is a creative company.  That means success begins with an assessment of one’s unique core competency, and that informs leadership through product strategy, not structural adjustment.  Applying unique core competency to product vision drives innovation, forcing a company to determine how it will always be as good as or better than its peer group or competitive circle.   Creative destruction — the continual reinvention of a product or service through ceaseless innovation — begins with the decision not to position one’s output as a commodity, where price rather than differentiation calls the shots.

When Steve Jobs returned to Apple in 1997, he applied a product vision to absolutely embrace the internet through leapfrog design, which was exactly the right move at the right time.  When Eisner and Wells took over management at Disney in 1984 when it was on the verge of a breakup, they applied a product vision to reinvent the company’s product lines through best in class storytelling, merchandising, and delivery mechanisms.  When Jack Welch took over General Electric in 1981 and decided he wanted to exit small appliances, he applied a product vision to become a market leader in industry leading medical equipment and aircraft engines.  In all three cases, it was product strategy — knowing what to keep, knowing what to dump, and knowing what to pioneer — that led to unparalleled success.  They did not outsource their winning moves, they owned them.

The turnaround at Yahoo after the refusal of the Microsoft buyout offer was positioned broadly as structural adjustment.  I am sure there were inefficiencies at Yahoo like there are in any big company, but if you solved all those and added no product vision, it really didn’t matter what you solved.  You would have a more efficient machine that produced less visionary work.  That is not a growth company with promise.  It is a factory.  A factory is not a creative company, it is a factory.

For any “portal” platform, Search is not tactical, it is strategic.  I have heard the argument against this for ten years and it just wrong.  How do I know that?  Look at Google.  Search is their core competency, it is their DNA.  So if Search is strategic for Google and you are competing against them, then how is it tactical?  You may choose to decide you can’t compete with them, which is fine, but if Yahoo was not competing with Google, then who was their competition?  Content companies with big editorial and production costs?  Ad networks?  Telecom?  The problem for the Yahoo employees has been that they were never sure, and the company’s valuation is a reflection of that ambiguity.

Imagine that instead of agreeing to the Microsoft partnership, Yahoo had fought with every fiber of its creativity and gained 3 or 4 points of market share from Google on product respect recognized by the public.  Imagine instead of the mass media branding campaign they did two years ago if they had put all of that money into engineering talent and led a battle cry inside the company to take Search share from Google by improving their algorithms, relevancy correlations, and keyword auction technology while mobile was still nascent.  Would the street have valued that commitment and its promise over the one time benefit of cost cutting and the ten-year forecast baked into their financials of the low delta Microsoft contribution?  Would the employees have given everything they had for the pride of winning, not to mention the potential payoff in their stock options?  Was the Search game so over in 2009, just 15 years into the commercial internet, that walking away from Search when you were still positioned as a top 3 player made sense?

And if you were going to exit Search, where was the company’s core creative focus to be redirected?  Long ago, Tandy got out of leather goods to become Radio Shack, a bold move for its time, but one with a rallying cry.  Yahoo got out of Search, so that people today ask, “What is Yahoo?”

Simple lessons replayed:

In-source that which is strategic, outsource that which is tactical. 

If you exit a strategic line of business, you better have a better one to champion as its replacement. 

A technology company is a creative company.

Creative people have a dire need to build that which is great.  That is what they do.  That is how innovation happens.  Creative destruction is how value creation in legendary companies is sustained.

Yahoo may or may not address this on the rebound, but all of us should take the opportunity to ditch the hyperbole and internalize the basics of identifying and sustaining core competencies that are lasting and cherished.  A brand is a promise.  That promise is delivered not by what you rent, but by what you own.

Your Gun, Your Badge, Your Honor

Last week I attended a panel discussion at the LA Film Festival called Your Gun and Your Badge whose participants included:

Robert Crais (Writer, Cagney & Lacey, Baretta; author of the Elvis Cole mysteries)
David Milch (Writer, Hill Street Blues; creator NYPD Blue)
José Padilha (Director, Elite Squad, Elite Squad: The Enemy Within)
Gerald Petievich (ex-Secret Service agent and author, To Live and Die in L.A.)
Moderated by Los Angeles Times contributor Mark Olsen

Full disclosure, I worked for David Milch more than 20 years ago and consider him not only one of the finest working writers today, but an immensely impactful teacher.  I hadn’t heard him speak on the writing craft since I worked for him so long ago and arranged a series of lectures he gave, which carried forward the ethos he previously established when he taught creative writing at the university level.

Mark Olsen of the Los Angeles Times set the tone for the panel by noting our location downtown, the heart of so many noir tales and a reality base for police activity that defines many episodes from which fiction is derived.  All of the writers shared varying perspectives from successful careers as storytellers, but what struck me most about the discussion was its common theme focusing on authenticity.  This notion of establishing the set of norms that constitute a world view and then remaining true to them transcended police work in my mind, it even transcended the procedural staging of those norms in the form of entertainment.  In approaching their craft, the writers universally noted the mandate for extensive research as a requirement of their approach, and a bottom line almost moral responsibility to understand the details of the world they would portray before they could begin interpreting it.

Gerald Petievich, a 20 year Secret Service agent turned novelist and later screenwriter, repeatedly used the term “verisimilitude” to describe the requirements of his characters.  Jose Padilha, who was sued in Brazil for his portrayal of violence as commonality in the Elite Squad, referenced the suit as evidence he had achieved the authenticity he sought.  Robert Crais, attempting to define process in his approach to character development, quoted the renowned author Joseph Wambaugh who wondered, “Does the cop work the case, or does the case work the cop?”  David Milch talked in detail of how we watch characters struggle to overcome their failings, summing up his reflection with the powerful descriptor: “If there is a God he wants us to be honest; if there isn’t, it’s even more important.”

As I kept hearing these words become almost the foundations of a chorus — authenticity, verisimilitude, honesty — it occurred to me that so much of what we consume as popular showmanship is experienced in the form of escapism.  Our hunger for Super Hero movies seems insatiable, and with occasional exceptions, the documentary film as a form of commercial entertainment has seen better days.  Yet authenticity is a broader construct than a simple portrayal of reality — as was noted by the panel, Ziegfield was as committed to getting every stitch in every costume right, not because the audience could necessarily see it, but because whoever was wearing the costume had to know it was correct to convey the same notion of authenticity under that banner.

The consistency of this message of the artist’s commitment to authenticity was inspiring and thought-provoking.  Anyone can pay lip service to the notion of honesty, but an audience can feel the writer’s dedication in the work when presented.  But what about in the workplace, is our commitment to verisimilitude as profound as that of the author?  Is it as pronounced as it should be?  Is there a relevancy in this ethos to how we approach day to day business, the seriousness of our research, the authenticity of our value propositions and commitments to colleagues and customers?

It occurred to me that I had never heard a panel discussion at any business conference I ever attended even remotely like this one, certainly not with top dogs of equivalent stature in their respective fields who have earned the permission to delve in such expression.  Thinking about the headlines of late — of homes with mortgages underwater, of securities backed by worthless collateral, of for profit schools leaving students in debt without marketable skills, of a once trusted giant of personal financial management now behind bars — I wonder where is the verisimilitude in all that.  Surely a scam is born every few minutes, without them there would be much less to write about, but the creators of products and services might do well to see intrinsic value in the pride of authenticity, the self-knowledge and reflection that it is expected of us no differently from the creators of books, television shows, and movies.  Just as we can abandon any form of media if the hard work of noble construction is not present, so can a brand be abandoned by customers in a world of choice.

The applicability of authentic commitment seems less metaphorical than an actual model of success, where the judge is first oneself, followed then by making the offer available to others.  A scene depicted without requisite deliberation is a skit.  A brand evangelized without a consistent promise is a logo.  It’s not hard to see the distance, but it takes more than words to close the gap.

We all crave authenticity. We all crave verisimilitude. We all crave honesty.  Imagine the power of unlocking the value in that inspiration in everything we do.  The storyteller may lead, but we all can have a great deal of skin in this game if we hold ourselves accountable for the same level of commitment to detail, rigorous study, ongoing iteration, and a set of beliefs that reflects equal parts respect for the subject and the audience.  That to me is a story worth telling, experiencing, and sharing.

It’s not just about police work, it’s about all work.