When a Mess Is Not a Mess

True story: When I sat down to write this blog post, immediately after typing the title, I spilled a glass of iced tea on my desk.

How appropriate, pointedly ironic, I thought. I am about to write an article saying that a mess is not always a mess, and then I make a mess.

Or did I?

It’s probably not lost on you that the next thing I did after spilling my iced tea was to clean my desk. Save for the few papers that were soaked and had to be tossed (ah, well!) it gave me the long procrastinated opportunity to eradicate some clutter. Where there was long-ignored dust between books and computer cords, there are visible patches of polished wood. Who knows when I would have gotten to those desktop dust bunnies?

And so a modest mess immediately became an opportunity, precisely the story I wanted to tell.

Unfortunately, that is not always the case.

Hot Mess is a contemporary descriptor gaining momentum. I’m not sure I understand its full colloquial application, but it does seem to roll off the tongue.

Has the global pandemic complicated by contradictory expressions of strategy and uncertain leadership left us of late in a hot mess? It would be hard to argue the contrary.

Facts and opinions are muddled. Too many hospital intensive care wards are filled. Families are losing loved ones. Jobs have been wiped out in record numbers. Businesses are told they can reopen only to be told to close again. No one is quite sure whether schools should be attended in person. We’re even arguing with each other about whether mandated mask safety constitutes some violation of personal liberty.

Yes, that is some hot mess. It lacks leadership and accountability. It’s chaos that has been largely disowned rather than harnessed for cohesive transformation.

What’s the difference? When can we throw our hands in the air with rage and declare a hot mess, and when is it an opportunity? Better asked: Aren’t we always better off trying to convert a mess into an opportunity?

Having faced a lot of business messes in my years—and largely knowing that every time I have been able to do something I believed mattered it was because I was asked to unpack a mess—here’s where I think healthy optimism is warranted.

Customers are your best bet at keeping your business alive. If you have a growing base of profitable customers, give thanks; almost every mess can be mopped up.

Cash flow is essential to keeping your business alive. If you have access to enough cash to remain current on payables, rejoice humbly; almost every mess can be mopped up.

Talent and teamwork are the secret sauce in keeping your business alive. If you have motivated colleagues who share your challenges, bump an elbow; almost every mess can be mopped up.

Customers, cash flow, and collegial partners all create the runway we need to address our messes. Lose those, and a spreading mess can swallow up the best of us.

A runway buys you time. That time is precious, and it’s what you need to convert a mess into an opportunity. If you have runway, you’ll be surprised how much you can fix. Think runway, and if you are fortunate enough to have some, stop beating yourself up over ordinary obstacles.

It’s easy to get frustrated, angry, even demoralized when faced with mountains of deferred maintenance. Anyone coming into a challenging situation would prefer to focus on productive reinvention over time-consuming tasks that were swept under the rug by their retired predecessor. The temptation to declare a catastrophe is often strongest when critical progress appears to be at a standstill. You might be missing the dawn lurking beyond darkness.

A failed product? Not solely a mess, but perhaps an opportunity to build a much better product.

Too much infighting among your team? Certainly an uncomfortable mess, but perhaps an opportunity to foster consensus-building or ultimately reconsider some difficult personnel decisions.

Poor choices in back-office systems creating endless administration? Often cited as a mess, but truly an opportunity to bite the bullet and wipe away the information systems that are holding back progress.

An onslaught of unfair legal claims against the honest work you are pursuing? No one likes lawyer messes, expensive as they are, but there remains opportunity in learning from outside actions and readying yourself against future burdensome attacks.

Data accumulating in bulk without the proper framework for analysis or tools for funneling it toward well-reasoned responses? Little can create as much of a mess as terabytes of randomly collected data, but once you wrestle that data into programs for decision making, you will be hard-pressed to find a higher value mass of opportunity.

The point is not to confuse basic management problems with crises.

It’s a problem if parts of your business are broken, but those broken parts don’t necessarily constitute a crisis.

Not having enough loyal customers to buy you runway is a crisis.

Running out cash and not being able to secure enough to extend your runway is a crisis.

Not being surrounded by talent that can work your way out of a mess can easily become a crisis.

These kinds of messes often can’t be addressed soon enough to allow for a rebound. You have to decide if a mess is really an endgame or an obstacle to be navigated,

I remind people all the time: If there were no problems, then a business wouldn’t need management. The mess before you might be job security. It also may be opening the door to a brighter future you can’t yet anticipate.

We all spill iced tea on our desk now and again. Some of us get pissed off and spend the rest of the month complaining about the size of our desk and the lack of room for a proper drink holder. Others wipe up the mess and begin the next hour with a clean desk and a fresh perspective. Each mess is there either to consume us or let us transform its remedy into the hidden opportunity hiding under the wet towel.

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Photo: Pixabay

Standing Your Ground

How do you know when it’s time to stand firm on a point and when it’s time to cave in and go with the flow?

The answer is obvious: You never know, not for sure.

The hardest calls are the ones you make alone. You listen intently, gather data, think about the situation, seek counsel from close advisors, but in the end if you decide to take a stand, consider yourself alone.

Values, ethics, morals — all of them seem clear on paper when you are reading about someone else’s lapse. That’s called history. You read it in hindsight with reflection. You wonder in amazement at how something so rotten could have been advanced.

Looking forward is another problem entirely.

If you think making a decision on principle is easy, you probably haven’t yet made a hard one. If you have put yourself on the line for a heartfelt conviction, you know that courage is not something usually acknowledged in the present tense. It is awarded upon completion of a task, win or lose, based on context.

In the present you might be called something else entirely: difficult.

Difficult people tend to get a bad rap, and being difficult just to be difficult is not likely to lead you to the corner office. Some of the questions we face in staring down adversity include:

  • Whether we have thoroughly thought through an objection to the more genially accepted plan we oppose.
  • Whether dissension without triumph creates any intrinsic value of its own.
  • Whether the cost of standing in isolation is worth it.

Let’s think about those three filters as we ponder a few hypothetical but easily applicable real-world examples of standing your ground in the corporate world.

Someone Getting Fired Unjustly. Suppose a colleague of yours, Charlie, has somehow become the fall guy for a project that has spiraled wildly off schedule and budget. The project team has found an easy out because your department VP is already known to dislike Charlie, so all the group has to do is subtly throw Charlie under the bus and the clock resets to zero. You don’t particularly like Charlie, but you know he is no more innocent or guilty than anyone else on the wayward team. When you suggest a defense of Charlie to the group, it becomes clear that if you go to bat for the loser, you will be ostracized, And hey, everyone knows the VP has been looking for a way to get rid of Charlie for years, so how are you going to talk her out of it?

Bonus Calculations Are Manipulated. You work under a sales leader who is a notorious sandbagger (someone who asserts a goal is a Hail Mary when it’s an underhand toss), but smooth talker that he is, his forecasts go through every year and your team receives handsome bonuses. This year he sets a revenue goal that your team has already achieved with existing repeat business. His plan is approved. This year’s goal is in the bag before the starting gun is even fired, so bonuses will be flowing like water. Then you attend a company meeting and hear the CEO say in earnest that the company is having some critical financial issues this year and will probably lose money unless everyone digs deep for a better outcome. You approach your sales leader and suggest he increases the sales goal so bonuses aren’t paid out of losses. He tells you that you don’t understand the CEO’s game, and if you so much as mention taking up the goal again, you will certainly need to find another sales team, and possibly a new employer.

Confidential Information Is Compromised. After months of going in circles and failing to make progress on a design problem, the senior engineer on your team circulates a breakthrough project plan. Your company has been losing market share to a competitor for the last year on inferior feature design at high cost, but at last that is behind you. Late one night when you are building out your portion of the specification, you overhear a conversation where the senior engineer jokes that it only cost him a few thousand dollars cash to hack the competitor’s database and extract the secret sauce that has been causing your company to lose. You approach the senior engineer and tell him you are uncomfortable with what you overheard. He tells you he was just bragging, it was open-source code he found and modified, and he would appreciate it if you didn’t broadcast that because open-source solutions are frowned upon in the company. Is he lying about open-source vs. hacking? Either way, if you speak up you’re going to be responsible for stalling the turnaround.

On first blush I’m sure most people considering these scenarios think they would do the right thing, because we all like to believe when faced with a crisis of values, ethical people will choose to act with ethical intent. Now ask yourself this: Do you know someone working beside you who has faced a similar situation and not acted in the appropriate ethical manner? If you do, why haven’t you confronted them? If you have confronted them and they have brushed you off, how far were you willing to pursue the compromise in judgment? Why are you willing to work in an environment where a person like that can get away with something so wrong?

Courage is a word that is tossed about without nearly enough care, but understand that in your time on the job you will have multiple opportunities to act courageously or not. Are you ready to put yourself to the test? Are you willing to stand your ground and take what comes with that decision when the consequences may not be reversible? If you want courage to be a descriptor of what your life is about, you’ll need to embrace the notion that poetic justice is much more present in literary fiction than it is in real life. Situational ethics may be a useful convenience, but they aren’t likely to do much for your self-esteem. You only win by doing what is right if your definition of winning is more about who you are than the outcomes you direct.

Courage is at the heart of a true leader. It can be costly in the short term, but it will always reflect your character. Standing your ground is not a question of options; it is the challenge of identity.

 

Mentoring is the Secret Sauce

YodaLast month I gave a talk at Innovate Pasadena on mentoring. I shared some reflections on what it has meant to me to have mentors in my personal and work life, and what it means to me to be a mentor when I have the opportunity. I talked about my former staff members who still call me up, the new people whose journey I have joined, and how all that creates an ecosystem of mutual support, vibrant feedback loops, and trusted opinion testing.

It is worth noting given the inescapable subjectivity in this meditation that this is simply how I think about the world, one mentor’s opinion as it were, and not meant to be an encyclopedic statement for all worthy mentors at large. That said, here are some of the key ideas I covered:

What is mentoring? My definition: One person who has ideas and experience to offer engaging in a relationship with another person who has ideas and experience to offer. It’s a two-way street. If it’s not a relationship—which means give and take—it does not work.

What isn’t it? It isn’t me making the hard decisions for you that you don’t want to make for yourself. I think of this as a Socratic dialogue where I get to ask you a lot of questions. You’re going to do all the work, because it’s your work, and I won’t let you dump your work on me.

Am I going to step on your fingers or tell you you’re awesome? Yes. It depends on what you need. This is jazz. I go with the flow. BTW, if you’re not awesome, I’m not going to be interested at all. If I’m hard on you, it’s because I need to be, not because I want to be. If I don’t say anything at all, it’s because I have given up—that’s the worst thing that can happen.

What’s the difference between consulting, coaching, and mentoring? I have given a three-day seminar on this, but think of it this way: When I’m consulting, you’re paying for my experience to fix a problem; you want a recommendation and you want it backed up. When I’m coaching, you’re paying me for my time to bring out the best in you. I think of both consulting and coaching as relatively shorter-term assignments that surely can be extended, and while mentoring encompasses elements of both, I think of it as a longer-term engagement, even if sporadic. When I’m mentoring, we’re both investing in a relationship that helps you do your job, that brings both of us benefits, tangible and intangible. I don’t expect anything when I consult except to get paid on time, which is why I don’t do much of it. I don’t expect you to give back when I’m coaching, I expect you to perform. When I’m mentoring, I expect to get something back from you, even if it’s just satisfaction, but I also expect to learn things from you that I can redirect elsewhere.

Can your boss be your mentor? Yes, if you are very lucky. I’ve had a few bosses who were fantastic mentors. They were 100% in my corner. They were not competing with me. I have also had awful bosses who said all the buzzwords but couldn’t have cared less if I lived or died as long as I made them rich. If you don’t have a good boss, and odds are you don’t, especially if you’re an entrepreneur, then find yourself a mentor. I promise you, the mountain climb ahead is going to hurt a lot less if you have someone who really cares about you—other than your spouse, who is truly tired of hearing all your business problems and probably can’t help you more than she or he already has.

How do I find a mentor? They will probably find you, and the question is, will you be paying attention? Almost no one fills out a mentoring application or posts a listing on Craigslist to be a mentor. Coaches and consultants do that. Mentors opt into a relationship as it naturally expands. Keep your eyes open! If someone is taking an interest in your work, go with it. Incubators and accelerators offer formal and informal ways to meet industry experts, but so do community centers and shared-interest groups. If someone invests in your company and he or she is showing an interest in more than your financial performance, spend more time with them. Do things for people all the time and they will do things for you, often when you least expect it and most need it. You don’t have to ask, “Will you be my mentor?” In fact, most of the time I find out years afterward that someone thought of me as a mentor. It happens naturally.

Will I open my Rolodex to you? OK, first, what’s a Rolodex? The answer is yes, selectively, as trust builds. If I’m financially invested in your success and I think you’ll do well with an open door, I may open it. If I’m not personally invested in you but I think there is a win-win introducing you to someone I know, I may do it, but understand, my network and my reputation are among my most important assets, so if you take advantage of my network, it’s one and done.

Do I get compensated? This can be tricky. Sometimes there is money involved in mentoring, sometimes not. First and foremost, if I admire your commitment or like what you’re brave enough to be attempting, I just do it because thank goodness someone did it for me. I have about 200 or so people from past gigs whom I still call back for free. If you worked for me in the past and reach out to me and you weren’t a turd, I’ll always call you back promptly. Sometimes in a board situation I might get paid something meaningful at liquidity. Sometimes if liquidity is a long way off and it makes sense for everyone involved given the time commitment, I might take a retainer fee. Often I get involved in a project on pure spec with the vague potential of phantom equity. A lot here depends on how much sequential time is involved, as well as how curious I am about your vision. Free or paid, cash or stock, what matters is that we both feel good about it, that the material and spiritual rewards all feel fair, and we are always transparent in our expectations.

Do you have to listen to your mentor for it to work? Yes, you have to listen. You don’t have to do what I say, but I have to know you’re listening. If you’re not listening, then why am I talking? If you just want my contacts or my money, I’m not a mentor, I’m something else. If I say something and you decide you don’t want to do it, that’s cool; just explain your thought process so I know that we are in this together. If you blow me off or don’t afford me that level of respect, I am going to bail.

Must you pay it forward and backward? You must. If you’re not planning to help someone down the road, don’t expect to keep my interest. Good people attract good people. If you join this club, expect to stay in it for life.