Women Who Put Out Fires

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Recently there’s been chatter on how women often become leaders during crises. A number of examples come to mind: Carly Fiorina (Hewlett-Packard); Mary Barra (GM); Marissa Mayer (Google, Yahoo); Margaret Thatcher (UK Prime Minister) and Theresa May (UK Prime Minister). All these women attained high leadership positions during major upheavals in companies or countries.

Why do crises and women leaders go together? Two reasons stick out: (1) the men screwed things up and don’t want to touch the problem with a ten-foot pole; (2) groups cast about for a fresh perspective, saying, “Let’s see what a woman can do with this situation.”

Of course, sometimes men on the outside are simply waiting for the problem to overwhelm the woman so they can claim, “See? She can’t do it! But we can!” and winch themselves back into power.

Thus women candidates for leadership may want to think twice before gambling on a position that could turn out to be a sucker bet.

It brings to mind an old joke: “Why do ducks have webbed feet?” … “To stamp out forest fires.” … “And why do elephants have flat feet?” … “To stamp out flaming ducks.” You don’t want to become a pile of ignited feathers squished by an elephant of a crisis.

Two approaches to this dilemma are likely to be popular:

1. Complain that “men are no damn good” and they only use women in blazing emergencies and then toss them under the fire truck when the going gets smoky.

2. Learn how to put out fires.

Number 1, above, may be partly true and therefore useful to know. But complaining does not a leader make.

Number 2 is where the money is. A crisis is a woman’s chance to demonstrate calm capability. To that end, prepare for the opportunity:

• Learn how to handle budget emergencies

• Learn how to cut red tape

• Learn how to lay off employees, especially men who will try to intimidate you when you hand them a pink slip

• Learn how to cut spending, especially pet projects that are squirting money like severed arteries

• Learn how to meditate (or anything else that keeps you calm and unflappable)

With hard work, smarts, and a bit of luck, a woman can save the day, convert a trap into a triumph, and rise from patsy to hero. At that point, she should make sure her future compensation reflects her excellent performance — and/or be ready to field offers from other companies desperate for a turn-around artist.

So, ladies: prepare for the job as if it’ll be a series of emergencies … assemble your fire equipment … and go put out some fires.

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A Survey of Startups

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Nearly all startups fail to scale up.

There — we got the bad news out of the way. The good news: it’s possible to greatly shorten the odds by following a few simple rules.

A report on recent MIT research lays out some pointers:

“Compared to average startups, which have a one in 3,500 chance of experiencing growth, the top one percent of firms with these characteristics have a much better chance (one in 100) of taking off. New startups are four times more likely than the average startup to grow if they are a corporation, two and a half times more likely if they have a short name, and five times more likely if they have trademarks. Furthermore, firms that apply for patents are 35 times more likely to grow. And, curiously, eponymously named firms are a whopping 70 percent less likely to grow.”

There’s more, but in a nutshell:

  • Incorporate
  • Use a short name (not the founder’s name!)
  • Nail down your trademarks
  • Apply for patents
  • Locate in a high-tech region:
    • Silicon Valley
    • Southern California
    • Washington state
    • New York / Boston
    • Texas

Oh, and let’s add the standard principles for business success:

  • Provide a product or service people need and love
  • Make what you sell vastly better in some important way
  • Hire excellent people you can get along with
  • Stay focused on results (instead of signs of your own importance)
  • Work your butt off for 4 years or more

What could be simpler? Now get to it.

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Victory or Profits?

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Popular business theories often rely on the notion that success is binary: that you either defeat other businesses or you are defeated. This idea enables sports coaches to consult with Fortune 500 companies, but does it really cover all the bases? 

“Do or die” has an elemental, romantic appeal to corporate CEOs, most of whom are highly competitive and love a good battle. And it’s true that the marketplace can be ruthless. But that’s not all there is, and out-and-out market victory certainly isn’t the only source of profitability. Let’s look at some of the popular shibboleths and see if we can improve on them:

  • Grow or Die: This idea comes mainly from the 1973 book Grow or Die by George Land. The author described how all living systems, including businesses, go through growth spurts when they discover and exploit new resources, then stall out when those resources run dry, at which point new approaches to resource discovery and management must be developed. It helped publicize the S-curve, which shows how growth starts slow, speeds up, then slows down again. These concepts have proven popular and useful to business strategists. But still we’re left with that catchy binary book title, which seems to imply that all companies, and life forms in general, must constantly enlarge or they will be destroyed. By that reckoning, the oldest and most successful creatures would be the size of Massachusetts, generating their own Zip Codes and a sizeable gravitational field.
    • Better: Adapt or Fade. The point is profits, not constant growth. It’s not how big you are but how much you return to your stakeholders. To that end, especially in today’s innovative marketplace, the adaptive and creative firms will do best. That S-curve will show the growth of your margin, not merely your bulk.
  • Go Big or Go Home: This is a metaphor from sports, where outcomes are always binary (except in hockey). But it’s not a solid match for what companies face in the marketplace. Competition is only one aspect of commerce, and second- and third-place firms often earn more profit than the leader. But “Go big” appeals to men, who are fueled by testosterone and thrive on competition. For many leaders, the only thing that matters is total victory, as if they were in a war where the loser submits to unconditional surrender. Markets don’t usually work that way.
    • Better: Own Your Niche. Find the spot in the market where your company has a natural monopoly because of its uniquely useful products. The focus is on serving the clients and making a profit, instead of trying for some arbitrary notion of “victory”. (But you can still feel dominant in your particular corner of the market, if you need that buzz.)
  • Take or Give: Givers, says Adam Grant in his book Give and Take, prefer to give more than they get, and their team thrives. Takers, on the other hand, believe it’s a dog-eat-dog world, and they must grab as much as they can and give as little as possible, which disrupts group efforts. Clearly, you want a Giver on your team. But Grant’s thesis suggests a binary takeaway, namely, that the energy of your labor is exactly counterbalanced by the energy stored in the money you make. This is a zero-sum game, and it represents an attitude that goes all the way back to 17th-century Mercantilists, who believed that trade only worked if they “got more than they gave”, as if cash and product were worth exactly the same to both sides of an exchange that was more competition than cooperation. It’s also an attitude popular among fiscal liberals, who tend to think the rich got that way by cheating. In fact, Grant suggests that the only real flaw in a Giver is the tendency to give too much, as if he or she should pull back, now and then, and be a Taker — at least, long enough to pay for some nifty stuff. It makes the Giver look like the Nicest Loser.
    • Better: Create Value (rather than hijack it). Grant’s main point is that we work best when we’re not constantly calculating what we’re getting from our labors. If, instead, we focus on producing for the team, our pay will tend to reward us naturally over time. This seems a wise and fruitful attitude. And Grant — a Wharton Business School professor — no doubt understands exchange theory quite well. He’ll likely agree that when you make value generation your goal, you’ll do much better in the long run than when you act like a leech.
  • Dominate the Market: If you control the market, you ought to be able to dictate price and guarantee huge profits. Or so they say. The binary implication is that you own your market or it owns you. In fact, giant companies with overwhelming market share often get trapped paying for their enormous infrastructure by cranking out low-margin items. Meanwhile, small competitors can adapt and innovate quickly, so their goods and services are more likely to be uniquely valuable and command higher margins.
    • Better: KIP (Keep It Profitable). Yes, a huge corporation with a low margin may take more total profit than a small company with a big margin. And, yes, a big margin on big revenue is better than a big margin on small revenue. But as a general matter, it’s more important to be profitable than large. Size, as scientists would say, is an “emergent property” of success. But it’s not required.

In short: stay adaptive, develop your own niche, focus your team on creating value, and point your firm toward profit rather than size, and you’ll sidestep most of the grinding headaches that come from trying to steamroll your competitors in a “do or die” fight to the finish. 

Let someone else take home the laurels, and you bring home the bacon.

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How Positive Thinking Works … and Doesn’t

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Once you get past physics, reality is entirely negotiable. Taylor Pearson

Positive thinking — or visualizations, or affirmations, or “imaging”, as they call it in sports — is an approach to problem-solving where the user imagines, or envisions, the successful outcome of a project. 

It’s widely used in athletics, hypnosis, psychological counseling, and in some religions. Professions with payoffs that are hard to predict — sales, sports, the arts — often dabble in this approach. Business, where results really matter, is an arena where visualization techniques might offer great potential.

The theory is that outcomes — both good and bad — are controlled by our thoughts rather than merely by environment or genetics. You may have a difficult boss or co-worker, but you could imagine yourself getting along smoothly with this person — and, if you do it correctly, your mental pictures would result in an improved relationship. If your sales numbers are poor, you might visualize future reports with strong numbers, and somehow that would translate into better results down the line. Or you might “see yourself” as a slender and fit person, and this would cause excess weight to melt away and a rack of abs to appear.

At the simplest level, this process has been called “skull practice” — you’re simply rehearsing in your mind the behaviors and/or results you want so that, in real life, your nervous system automatically seeks out resources and performs actions that lead to your objective, and good results follow.

The most important assertion is that this kind of mental rehearsal can affect a much wider variety of outcomes than we normally believe can be altered — personality, health, financial situation, friendships, love life, etc etc. Sure, you can rehearse a speech in your head, but can you rehearse a change in your personality or bank account? The theory says yes.

Really? Can this stuff work? Can we use positive imaging to improve our results in the workplace and elsewhere? Or is it all a bunch of malarkey? 

In America, visualization descends from a late-19th-century philosophy called New Thought, which taught that the spirit of God is in everything, and that failure to understand this leads to wrong thinking and illness. New Thought also asserted that “thoughts are things” that can generate new matter out of imagination. In the 20th century, several popular books moved the conversation along: Think and Grow Rich, The Power of Positive Thinking, Psycho-Cybernetics, Creative Visualization, and, recently, The Secret.

You can guess that there might be a certain amount of baggage and confusion accompanying these ideas. The entire field has an aura of magic, of the miraculous, that can turn off practical people. On one side we find enthusiasts making extraordinary claims, and on the other we have skeptics who believe the whole movement is a bunch of charlatans spouting unscientific rubbish. 

True, there are plenty of visualization coaches out there who are overweight. And studies have suggested that career criminals have strong self-esteem. On the other hand, formal research points to something useful:

  1. Science hints at benefits from “positive thinking”: “ . . . some evidence suggests positive thinking might have a strictly biological impact as well.” And it can improve health through stress reduction
  2. Emotional stress can influence gene expression: Soldiers with PTSD showed changes in the way their DNA controlled cellular activity. This opens the door for the possibility of changing ourselves at the genetic level through stress reduction and/or positive thinking. “ . . . it may be possible that positive thinking, through some physiological byproducts that, let’s say, reduce stress or lower blood pressure levels, could impact gene expression.” Your very DNA, then, may be malleable, and thinking might be the tool.
  3. Optimism boosts health: “ . . . people who are optimistic about their health tend to do better.

To add to the confusion, the literature on visualization and positive thinking is a mishmash of prescriptions, and some books contradict others. Here are a few of the many ways positive thinking has been presented:

–Imagine what you want, one time, and it will come to you

–Imagine what you want, over and over, until you get it

–Imagine what you want and make it intensely attractive

–Imagine what you want, then imagine the opposite, then choose what you want

–Imagine what you desire, then want, believe, and expect that it is true

–Imagine what you want and never allow bad thoughts to enter your mind

–Imagine what you want and then resolve any contradictions that arise in your feelings

At least they all involve imagining what you want. That’s a starting point.

Let’s try to remove the chaff. Then maybe we can get to the wheat.

First, there is what I call the “Stupid Brain Theory” of positive thinking. Basically, the theory is that “whatever we dwell upon we draw to ourselves,” so that if we focus on the problems we’re having, the problems get bigger. This is based on the idea that the mind is attracted to anything with strong emotional content. Why else would we fuss and worry about some issue, only to have it turn out badly? We must, perversely, have been attracted to the very thing that causes us pain. Therefore we should counteract all negative thoughts with positive ones. (This notion carries weight with evangelicals — many of whom are drawn to positive thinking — since it can be explained as “tests from God”.) 

More likely, we wallow in failures because we don’t realize there are better options. We try to make the best of a bad situation, and end up with … a modified bad situation. We’re not stupid; we’re just ignorant of the possibilities.

Then there’s “The Secret Theory”, which basically states that the great people of history all practiced positive thinking, but for some reason this tremendous power has been kept away from the mass of humanity. (That is, until the book The Secret came out, of course.) But the idea that billions of people have been so foolish and limited as to have failed after all this time (and access to the Internet) to find for themselves this wonderful tool … well, it beggars belief. 

It’s much more probable that we’re simply brought up from birth to “know our place” and to refrain from daring to imagine more. As well, many difficult roadblocks crop up in our lives where it’s hard to imagine workarounds, so that we sometimes adopt the stance that “it can’t be helped”, and we give up.

Also there’s the “Try Hard Theory” that says you’ll get everything you want if you just want it badly enough and are willing to work super-hard (and do your affirmations every day for 30 minutes). It’s possible this is true, but it’s also a distressingly difficult method. The whole point of visualizations is to get what we want, and it kind of cancels the benefit if we must suffer and struggle endlessly in the process.

Now let’s see if we can distill the core principles — the useful stuff:

The evidence:

  • Stresses of life sometimes leave us with pessimistic attitudes about our potential
  • Parents and authority figures often straitjacket us into their systems of struggle
  • Modern technology opens up possibilities for solving nearly every human problem
  • Optimistic attitudes are correlated with good outcomes
  • Sports stars, business leaders, and great artists often swear to the benefits of visualizing

The process:

  • See in your mind the outcome you desire
  • Choose and expect that outcome
  • Allow the outcome to arrive as it will
  • Refine the process to suit you

All you need see in your mind’s eye is the result you want. (If, instead of visualizing “I am worth four million dollars”, you focus on the process — i.e., “First I get a job, then I make money to invest, then I peel some off to start a business, then I hire an accountant …” — you’ll become lost in details and never get to the result.) 

Then you make what you desire into a choice, not a wish; this will charge your mind with the expectation of obtaining the result. You’ll start to notice yourself taking an interest in things you previously ignored; this is your mind running its search for the contents of the result you’ve chosen.

In fact, the act of daring to choose what you want, despite the apparent odds, may be key to the entire process. We yearn for what isn’t ours, but we choose what belongs to us. Perhaps it’s the simple act of choosing that makes things possible, that brings our desires to fruition.

It’s important not to limit yourself to what you think is practical or logical. This kind of worry will cause you to edit your desires until they resemble what you merely assume is available, and you’ll be back where you started. There’s a big difference between “It can’t be done” and “I don’t yet know how to do it”. You’ll be surprised at what is attainable.

By the way, if you imagine “I’m great at sales” or “I’m a terrific administrator” but you still have an old belief like “I’m not allowed to have my own success” or “I’m a bad person”, the old attitude will sabotage the new one. So address the deepest concerns first, then work your way down the list to the smaller items (like that Tesla roadster you have your eye on).

As you practice, you’ll find that some approaches work better than others. Perhaps bedtime is a good moment for you to do visualizing, or maybe the morning is better; it could be that reciting aloud your affirmations works well — or, instead, silence is golden. Try various ways and see what works for you. Every brain is different, so tailor the process to fit yours. And there is a TON of literature on the topic, so there’s plenty of counsel. (See above for links to the most famous works.)

The great lesson of modernity is that nearly anything is possible. The old days of restrictive tribal loyalties and self-abnegation are gone, replaced by endless possibilities opening up for us in the future. Rather than staying trapped in the old attitudes of scarcity and impossibility, our task now is to engage that future. And this is the moment when visualization — affirmations, “positive thinking”, call it what you will — can serve us as we create wonders. 

A wise person said, “When you take a stand [for something in your life], the world will arrange itself to agree with you.” You might as well try it and see.

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UPDATE: “We can make ourselves more or less vulnerable by how we think about things.

UPDATE: Choose your role in life

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Failure? Mistake? Lesson?

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An expert is a person who has made all the mistakes which can be made in a very narrow field. — Niels Bohr

In recent years it’s become a business truism that failure is a path to success. The idea is that if you’re having failures you’re trying lots of things — tossing stuff against the wall to see what sticks — which should lead eventually to something that pays off big time. (In Silicon Valley this attitude is quite popular, as high-tech startups are especially iffy.)

There’s a problem with this notion: it isn’t exactly true. Owners whose first businesses fail are unlikely to try again. The collapse of a cherished enterprise can crush the first-timer. These failures destroy capital, upend job security and ruin reputations.

Just thinking about such scenarios can make a business owner’s heart rate go into overdrive.

But maybe we’re suffering from a bit of confusion about what people mean by failure. Much of what is called “failure” is simply “mistakes”. When we confuse the two, we hesitate to try things, even small things, for fear we’ll “fail” when often the worst that happens is we learn something useful. If we don’t make this distinction — between mistakes and failures — we’ll freeze up at the little challenges, and eventually our frozen selves shatter against a wall of defeat.

When scientists run an experiment and get a result they weren’t expecting, they don’t consider this “failure”; they think of it as “data”. To them, it’s all interesting. Artists experiment over and over, discarding most of their attempts, as they perfect new paintings or songs or comedy sketches.

Interesting outcomes are just awful outcomes with the volume of drama turned way down. — Elizabeth Gilbert

Nearly everything a business does is made of small steps. Most of these steps are developed through trial and error. Mistakes get made and corrected, and the business moves forward. It’s these little mistakes, not the huge terrible failures, that help us grow stronger and smarter at work. 

• “Take care of the ounces, and the pounds will take care of themselves.” Failures and mistakes are outcomes of risk. Failure comes from big risks; mistakes come from small ones. If we’re undaunted by small risks and we try to learn from them, the odds of long-term success get enhanced. How, then, should we approach risk in general, so as to take advantage of mistakes and avoid failures?

Don’t regard any one project as everything: even your business startup is just a chapter in the history of your career. It’s the career that matters, not its expression today. In fact, entrepreneurs who manage more than one business at a time have higher success rates than “serial” entrepreneurs who only work on one. Of course you’ll put your best effort into every portion of your work. But knowing that no one project can make or break you takes the pressure off, so you’ll make fewer panicky mistakes and suffer fewer failures. 

Don’t take it personally: This one’s hard, especially when we’ve just been brought down by a mistake at work or, worse, a startup failure. At that moment we’re tempted to consider ourselves as failures. But the project failed, not us; just because we made a mistake doesn’t mean we are a mistake.

Do a pre-mortem: Good sales reps anticipate every possible objection from a prospect and prepare strong answers for each. This technique works for any aspect of business. Begin by making a list of all the ways your startup — or just this month’s work project — can go wrong. Then think of several ways to fix each situation. 

Do a post-mortem: This is, of course, a highly useful exercise with projects that implode, but it’s also worthwhile to follow up on any problems you encountered during the roll-out of a winner. Don’t let all the back-slapping and glass-clinking distract you from itemizing the small problems that cropped up, and devising repairs … so they don’t become big problems later.

Keep your eye on the racetrack, not the wall: Professional race car drivers know that if you go into a skid, you mustn’t stare at the oncoming wall but instead focus on where you want to go. This reorients you toward driving instead of crashing, which increases the chances you’ll get out of the jam and continue the race.

Remember that half of all businesses are still in play after five years: It’s a myth that 80 percent of new firms wash out in 12 months. The odds favor you.

…Finally: As a wise man said, do not brace yourself for failure, but ready yourself for fulfillment.

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