Archive | September 2012

From Brilliant Talent To Brilliant Jerk

To keep or not to keep a brilliant jerk, someone who has morphed from being a brilliant talent, in a growing entrepreneurial company?   This was the focus of a recent New York Times “Business Daily” article.  Whenever I talk to small business owners, they converge on this point: “personnel issues are the toughest.”  It is much easier to grapple with hard facts, payroll or growth chart, than “soft” issues, such as relationships, emotions, or power and control.  But return for a moment to the question: How does a brilliant talent in a startup turn into a brilliant jerk?  It’s rooted in the growth of the company where the dynamics of power and control change and shift, along with the evolution of culture with added personnel.

At the beginning of building an enterprise, the few founders create a strong esprit de corps.  They work overtime; they share everything; even during moments of struggle and frustration, they are of one aim.  Once the business becomes viable, the founders are faced with two major challenges:  How to grow at the “right” pace, and what to do with the new-found dynamics brought about by additional personnel?

Brilliant! Tragic!

Brilliant! Tragic! (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I am sure we all have experienced the awkwardness and difficulties whenever new members are added to, or replacing existing members in, a group project.  The once-engaged member can become snarky, or a once-contentious member less strident.  It’s all in the relationships!  Whether it’s a group in an organization, or a group of entrepreneurial founders, seeing the handiwork of one’s concept being stretched and altered by newcomers can be disconcerting at the very least.  I hazard to say that the more brilliant an original member is, the more the contributions have been made by this brilliant person (or so she believes), and the stronger the likelihood for this brilliant talent to become a brilliant jerk.  She would raise objections on small points to large structural issues; he may be passive/aggressive with respect to every new proposed move.  They might reluctantly go along with a new development but will criticize here and resist there.  And precisely because they too are brilliant, the original members feel, besides loyalty, an obligation to keep appeasing such a brilliant talent.  But the fabric of morale among others in the organization becomes frayed at the edges.

What to do?  The person(s) in charge has to find the courage and means to remove this brilliant jerk because the brilliance cannot make up for the lost productivity.  There are too many such stories in which the people around such a brilliant jerk applauded silently when the troublesome individual departed.  Almost just as often, the remaining employees think, “What took [you] so long to make this move?”  Of course, capriciously letting go an employee is demoralizing as well.  Personnel issues are thorny, and it’s tricky to arrive at a balanced path.

In the unilineal evolution model at left, all ...

In the unilineal evolution model at left, all cultures progress through set stages, while in the multilineal evolution model at right, distinctive culture histories are emphasized. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Such troublesome scenarios, keeping while working-around those brilliant jerks, are fairly common in all organizations.  It’s probably even trickier to solve such a problem situation in larger organizations; letting someone go, however justified, always has a potential legal aspect.  Therefore, most likely, these brilliant people just get moved around or, “given an office and a subscription to the Journal.”  Once in a long while, when they get moved into a position that’s perfectly fit for them, the outcome can be win-win.   But that’s rare.  Comparably frustrating is when not only your boss is the brilliant jerk, his/her boss is also a brilliant jerk.  It is more common in organizations for the mediocre people to take up management positions and play musical chairs.  These managers don’t do immediate and noticeable harm, but over time, they provide too many obstacles for their direct reports and thereby contribute to the organization’s overall lower-than-could-be performance.

That’s what I have been hearing and reading all these years.  And that’s one of the reasons why I write this blog, in the hope that somewhere, someone may find some nuggets in this blog helpful and actually reduce to practice some of the principles.  There are no easy answers when facing human foibles; there never will be.  So I keep reading and writing.  If you can provide some wisdom, won’t you please share it in this space?

Till next time,

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

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From Internet To Reality; From One Culture To Multiple Cultures

Just as work and life are intertwined, so are social issues and organizational issues.  We cannot separate them except to face accumulated troubles down the line; we need to understand the dynamics of the interaction effects and their impacts.  The rate of these interaction effects is faster and more impactful in the information (internet) age.  The most horrific examples came from the still spreading riots in the Muslim world, in reaction to the despicable and ignorant portrayal of prophet Muhammad on YouTube, owned by Google.  To say “both sides are employing deficit thinking” may win me the award of this year’s uber-understatement.  However, these recent violent reactions are the most dramatic outcomes from parties that can see only the negative in each other.  But what I really want to focus in today’s space is the issue of navigating through different cultural principles when a business operates on multinational platform.

The Iceberg/Freedom of Speech...Just Watch Wha...

The Iceberg/Freedom of Speech…Just Watch What You Say (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Early this week I heard part of a radio program, the Diane Rehm Show, where panelists discussed the “cultural clashes over free speech.”  To what extent should Google stand by the “freedom of speech” principle when host countries of Google’s overseas operations do not embrace such principle?  From all kinds of perspectives offered, I still feel ambivalent about how a multinational should operate when cultural principles and values clash.

To the extent that Google was founded on the principle of “freedom of speech,” and within a society that has bled for it, it should honor the very premise that has allowed its wild growth and profit.   Shouldn’t it?  Yet, “freedom of speech” is unique to American Constitution and culture, and to what extend should we, Americans in general, “impose” on other countries?  More fundamentally, when two cultural values clashes, how come it always seems that resolution requires one to give ground?

As I mentioned, I don’t have ready answers to these questions.

Say no to bribes (probably in Chipata), Zambia

Say no to bribes (probably in Chipata), Zambia (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Take another example of a principle, bribery vs. the elimination of bribes.  Bribes do not manifest only in the form of money; there are other means, but money is the most common form.  Suppose a US company knows that its unique widget is perfectly safe, having been approved and successfully used in the States as well as in many other industrialized nations.  But this company runs into a stonewall in a developing country where the local culture and practice is to “bribe” the officials to get anything done.  Should this US company play by the local rule or home country rule?  If the company actually approves such money exchange in order to get business, where should they draw the line for the next encounters, either in the country in question or the next countries?  Similarly, if we say it’s okay for Google or YouTube to make a judgment call, to edit as they see fit – which they do — where should they draw the line?  When we know certain materials would be regarded as inflammatory in many cultures, do we go ahead and post those materials in those countries anyway?

New York Times has a timely op-ed piece, focusing on politics and freedom of speech issue.  It gives me more information but my mind is still befuddled.

I can continue in this fashion, asking more and more questions, posing more and more competing perspectives, and I still cannot answer.  If you can, and have clear guidance, would you please share with others?

Till next time,

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

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Let’s Turn Competition Upside Down

Does competition always have to be against an “opponent?”  When a person wants only to beat “the other,” or when a corporation only wants to gain on “the other,” it automatically leads to a win-loss outcome.  Competition is based on deficit thinking.  After the battle is won, then what?

Royndin Fríða, Blikur og Svanur - 5-mannafør D...

Royndin Fríða, Blikur og Svanur – 5-mannafør Dreingir – Rowing Competition in Vágur, Faroe Islands (Photo credit: Eileen Sandá)

I’ve said it before, and I’ll keep beating the drum:  Competition works best when the work involves routine, and the operation has a mechanical nature to it.  Hence, competition works well in the sports arena.  Yet, we keep using sports metaphors, and at our own peril:  Where human efforts involve thinking, aim for innovation, or strive for creativity, competition is often counterproductive.  It can sap people’s energy, force people to focus on the near-term horizon, or foster a secretive work environment which eviscerates talent.

Furthermore, when we are in a competitive mode, comparing ourselves against another person or entity, we tend to copy the superficial.  That won’t get far for the outcomes we desire.  This is not to argue against learning from others.  But if learning is the true purpose, then that process would look profoundly different from what competition would offer.  For a starter, one needs to learn how the others think and process.

When I was teaching undergraduates at Wharton, PowerPoint was gaining popularity.  Any self-respecting student of a top-tier business school had to use it to demonstrate that s/he was with it.  But it made presentations, however flashy, boring after a while.  So, one semester, I said something like this:  This is a very competitive environment; no one wants to miss what others are doing.  So, everyone uses PowerPoint for presentation.  In such an environment, how do you make sure that your piece stands out?  (The buzz phrase was, of course, “what is your competitive advantage.”)  For that semester’s final project, group presentation weighted heavily in the final grade.  I hoped that some of them heard my words, but was totally unprepared for the outcome.  All but one group used PowerPoint, and that group used the tool rather tangentially.  Every group went out of its way to engage the audience, to showcase their unique talents.  I was utterly moved.  The students were well entertained, and they learned a lot, through the process and from each other.  As a result, I bucked the norm of grading them on a curve; more than half of the members of the class received a well deserved “A.”


Fireworks (Photo credit: Rampant.Gaffer)

I was really glad that the last classroom teaching of my teaching career ended with a big bang!

We sorely need win-win stories.  Do you have some to share?

I am on travel, visiting dear old friends and relatives.  I will resume this space on 9/23.  Till then,

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

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Let’s Celebrate Understated Leaders

“How do you spot a leader?  They come in all ages, shapes, sizes, and conditions.  Some are poor administrators, some are not overly bright.  One clue:  since most people per se are mediocre, the true leader can be recognized because, somehow or other, his people consistently turn in superior performances.”

From “Up the Organization,” by Robert Townsend

In what ways does this quote resonate with you?

Lance Armstrong at the team presentation of th...

Lance Armstrong at the team presentation of the 2010 Tour de France in Rotterdam (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Recently, two Armstrongs were in the news.  Lance Armstrong, of the tour de France fame, decided against continuing fighting doping charges.  Neil Armstrong, the first man to step onto the moon, passed away quietly.  While neither ran any organization, both were considered leaders of something.  One grabbed the spotlight, both willingly and unwillingly.  The other shied away from the spotlight at all times.  One inspired others to exercise determination and enhance physical mastery and the other steadfastly helped others build the prowess in science and engineering.  One is a charismatic leader and the other is a quiet level-5 leader.  Actually, by definition, level-5 leaders do not seek to lead any body of people; they just quietly, methodically and determinedly build something or solve some problems.

Flag of the United States on American astronau...

Flag of the United States on American astronaut Neil Armstrong’s space suit (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

American is an action-oriented culture; doing something is always deemed better than doing nothing.  So, every new manager has to do something, or change something.  Regardless!  Is there something wrong with “doing little or nothing” for certain times and contexts?

There was a good reason for assembly-line workers, burger flippers, or shop mechanics to have breaks throughout the day…though probably not enough.  But white collar (do we still use this term?!) professionals don’t seem to even take a lunch break very often…unless you are in the high ranking positions, and then, a lot of those lunches would probably give you heartburn, not from food, but from the stressful conversations.

We don’t take enough time to stop, to be still, to think and reflect.  As a painter, if I don’t step back and examine what I have just done, I can mess up my painting quickly.  Those who do detailed paintings or a large piece of creative rendition need to step back even more frequently.

Organization clears your path

Organization clears your path (Photo credit: nist6ss)

I advise people at work to take a ½ hour walk, rest and listen to some music for a while, read something light for 15 minutes, or engage in whatever takes one’s gaze off the task at hand.  I am not concerned for just the individuals; I am equally concerned, if not more, for those around such individuals — especially if they occupy a management seat.

Do you have examples of gaining a fresh perspective after a brief rest or an insight while daydreaming?  And when was the last time you followed your own example?

Happy Labor Day!  Till next week,

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

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