Friday, September 30, 2011

George Clooney: "Sometimes you have to fake it"

A great quote from George Clooney in Parade Magazine:

You’ve talked about how lucky you are. What have you learned from your failures?

It’s hard when you get thumped. I’ve been proficient at failure. But the only thing you can do is say, “Here’s what I won’t do next time.”

I was a baseball player in school. I had a good arm, I could catch anything, but I was having trouble hitting. I would be like, “I wonder if I’ll hit it; just let me hit the ball.” And then I went away for the fall, learned how to hit, and by my sophomore year I’d come to the plate and think, “I wonder where I want to hit the ball, to the left or right?” Just that little bit of skill and confidence changed everything. Well, I had to treat acting like that. I had to stop going to auditions thinking, “Oh, I hope they like me.” I had to go in thinking I was the answer to their problem. You could feel the difference in the room immediately.

The greatest lesson I learned was that sometimes you have to fake it. And you have to be willing to fail.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Jocelyn Glei: making and recovering from a poor job transition

Jocelyn Glei from shared a terrific mistake story and lessonon Here is the start of the story:

One of the biggest mistakes I made was a poor job transition in 2007. I had been working for an exciting startup called Flavorpill for a little over 4 years. When I joined in 2002, the company was expanding, and I had the opportunity to assemble an editorial team, collaborate with the founders on growing the brand, and work closely with our wonderful design partners to build and launch new products. It was a great job and I learned a ton. But eventually, I knew it was time to move on.

A friend connected me with the CEO of a massive music website that wanted to reinvent its coverage for a new, hipper audience. He was looking for an editor with a vision. I didn't like their current website, but the allure of having carte blanche to reinvent the site was strong. I was also offered more money than I had ever made, and the opportunity to relocate to Los Angeles. I was ready for a major change, and this seemed like the perfect way to shake things up.

As a result, I probably didn’t do as much homework on the position as I should have. After just a few weeks on the job, I realized something was amiss....

Please go to to read the rest.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Sometimes a bad mistake works out just fine

I posted this story first as a comment to a post on

14 years ago, I was getting restless in my current role and had started to look for new opportunities. The company I worked for was consolidating the division I worked in and there was a lot of uncertainty about the future. I was also feeling that I was ready to leave Boston, where I'd lived for more than 10 years since graduating from college.

Given these motivations, I rushed my job decision. When a former colleague called and said the company he worked for in Atlanta needed someone like me in a leadership position, I jumped. I didn't do my due diligence.

About two weeks after I started at the new place, and after I'd relocated, I realized that I had made a big mistake. I couldn't figure out the culture, the company didn't seem headed for success, and my job was not a lot of fun. What a disaster.

I ended up running into an executive at my former company, who had also moved down to Atlanta. We had dinner a few times, and at one point he said that the company he was working for would be a perfect fit for me. Nine months after I moved to Atlanta, I left the first company (refunding part of my relocation costs) and moved to this other one. I had a great run there and my old boss was right: it was a perfect fit.

Even happier than that, I made a lot of great friends at that company in Atlanta. One of those friends became my wife, and we have two wonderful kids together.

So the lesson for me is this: sometimes even a terrible decision can lead you on a path to an outcome that is far better than what a good decision would have resulted in.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Comparing Edison and Jobs in how they dealt with failure

Speaking of grit, let's consider Thomas Edison and Steve Jobs. In his blog, Bob Sutton posted about the terrific comparison of the two geniuses by Andrew Hargadon. And the most fascinating part of Hargadon's analysis is in highlighting how each dealt with crushing failure:

How both men dealt with their very public failures is a morality tale far richer in their differences than in the simplistic connections between them.

Once ousted, both men jumped immediately back into the arena, intent on proving their detractors wrong. And both failed again. Edison returned to an earlier project, the phonograph, but would soon become embroiled in, and ultimately lose, another standards war. In 1985, Jobs founded NeXT computer, describing in a name his desire for redemption. Interestingly, both invested in new movie technologies (Edison pioneering moving pictures with a system of film, camera, and projector; Jobs investing in Pixar and the development of computer animation).

At the end of their second acts, our two heroes faced their greatest challenges and, here, their paths diverged.

Edison kept roaming. Whether by temperament or temptation, he kept pursuing the next great invention, investing his and investors money in ultimately fruitless ventures such as magnetic iron-ore mining and concrete cast-in-place houses (both doomed by a toxic combination of huge capital costs and his well-known predilection for experimenting).

Jobs returned to Apple. Clearly the wiser for these experiences, he discussed publicly the lessons he learned from his original ouster from Apple and from the failure of NEXT despite its brilliant technology. Even brief conversations with former colleagues told me he had brought a new humility to the company’s innovation efforts. Gone was the effort to prove Apple’s technical genius, or inventive power.

Monday, September 26, 2011

"True Grit" - the importance of learning how to overcome setbacks

Paul Tough of The New York Times Magazine profiled private-school headmaster Dominic Randolph and his focus on instilling character into his students, in addition to the typical focus on academics and extracurriculars. Central to his efforts is a belief that students need to overcome setbacks - to try and fail at things - to develop character. Tough writes:

When I asked Randolph to explain just what he thought Riverdale students were missing out on, he told me the story of his own scholastic career. He did well in boarding school and was admitted to Harvard, but when he got to college, he felt lost, out of step with the power-tie careerism of the Reagan ’80s. After two years at Harvard, Randolph left for a year to work in a low-paying manual job, as a carpenter’s helper, trying to find himself. After college, he moved for a couple of years to Italy, where he worked odd jobs and studied opera. It was an uncertain and unsettled time in his life, filled with plenty of failed experiments and setbacks and struggles. Looking back on his life, though, Randolph says that the character strengths that enabled him to achieve the success that he has were not built in his years at Harvard or at the boarding schools he attended; they came out of those years of trial and error, of taking chances and living without a safety net. And it is precisely those kinds of experiences that he worries that his students aren’t having.

“The idea of building grit and building self-control is that you get that through failure,” Randolph explained. “And in most highly academic environments in the United States, no one fails anything.”

And one of the scholars who have influenced Randolph's thinking, Penn's Angela Duckworth, emphasizes that struggle is essential to success:

“The problem, I think, is not only the schools but also the students themselves,” she wrote. “Here’s why: learning is hard. True, learning is fun, exhilarating and gratifying — but it is also often daunting, exhausting and sometimes discouraging. . . . To help chronically low-performing but intelligent students, educators and parents must first recognize that character is at least as important as intellect.”

Duckworth’s early research showed that measures of self-control can be a more reliable predictor of students’ grade-point averages than their I.Q.’s. But while self-control seemed to be a critical ingredient in attaining basic success, Duckworth came to feel it wasn’t as relevant when it came to outstanding achievement. People who accomplished great things, she noticed, often combined a passion for a single mission with an unswerving dedication to achieve that mission, whatever the obstacles and however long it might take. She decided she needed to name this quality, and she chose the word “grit."

The idea of "grit" as a character trait vital to success is related to Carol Dweck's research showing the value of a learning versus a fixed mindset. To Dweck, successful learners see a failure as an opportunity to learn and improve, not a referendum on one's innate ability.

Some learn grit later in life. Others learn it early (Randolph is trying to teach it to his students). But in any event, if you don't learn it sooner or later, it's hard to be truly successful.

For more on grit, here's a TED Talk from Angela Duckworth:

Sunday, September 25, 2011 CEO Tim Sullivan: "Learning to manage in crisis stayed with me longer"

From the New York Times interview of CEO Tim Sullivan:

In 1994 I moved to Hong Kong to help set up an office in Asia, and in 1997 I was promoted to managing director for the region. It was a fantastic climb in a booming business, but then the Asian economic climate took a nosedive and video piracy exploded in the region. In turn, our business imploded. Learning to manage in crisis stayed with me longer than managing in the boom.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Mistake Bank top 10: "My Mistakes" by Eleanor Friedberger

Here's our new theme song, from Eleanor Friedberger of the Fiery Furnaces:

You can download the song here.

Tim Berry asks "why can't failures be included in speakers' bios?"

Tim Berry, in his great "Planning Startups Stories" blog, brings up a provocative assertion that is right up this site's alley:

I say entrepreneurs should agree on full disclosure in their bios. We should list not just our successes, but also the failures. Nobody lists the failures.

And he lists several reasons why this would improve our understanding of entrepreneurs and, ironically, success as well. Part of Tim's argument, which I agree with completely, is that people look at successful entrepreneurial ventures and create patterns that they believe are success rules. Then they publish them in books like "Good to Great" and readers think they have the magic formula. But because these books deliberately exclude failures (even from the same entrepreneurs!), their assessments are invalid and, worse, leave the mistaken impression that entrepreneurial success is replicable if you follow their 5 principles.

New businesses operate in a world of complexity. External issues, coincidence, luck, timing, etc., overwhelm operating principles when it comes to success and failure in entrepreneurial ventures. This doesn't mean you don't work hard and smart, but it does mean that those qualities don't guarantee anything at all.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

For learning, "knowledge-hungry" beats "grade-hungry" every time

In this Newsweek NurtureShock post, Po Bronson references an experiment by Stanford researcher Carol Dweck - the pioneer of looking at students' views of achievement vs. learning.

Bronson effortlessly summarizes a complex set of experiments by Dweck and co-researcher Jennifer Mangels, and you should read the entire post, but the major point was this: "knowledge-hungry" (in Bronson's terminology) students learned better from their mistakes than "grade-hungry" students. Knowledge-hungry students were interested in where they had made mistakes so they could learn the correct answer. Grade-hungry students were more concerned simply that they had made a mistake - the error itself obsessed them, not what they didn't know. As a result, knowledge-hungry students did better on a retest: they learned better.

Even when we leave school and enter the work world, we often remain "grade-hungry." Companies, frankly, enable and reward this focus with their HR management tools: promotions, numerical performance reviews, "merit" raises. Workers tend to be more concerned about the effect a mistake will have on these measures than on learning from what they did. This is bad for the company, of course. And bad for the worker.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Renault and Daimler, partnering, take lessons from prior failures

In announcing their partnership, Renault CEO Carlos Ghosn and Daimler CEO Dieter Zetsche made fascinating reference to prior automotive alliances they've been part of (including, without mentioning by name, DaimlerChrysler) - and how this one would be different. From the New York Times:

The two executives spoke glowingly of the partnership they began last year, comparing it favorably to less successful alliances they have been involved in before.
"Often your failures help you more than your successes," Mr. Ghosn said, mentioning a previous partnership between Renault, based in France, and Volvo in Sweden.
"I fully agree," Dr. Zetsche said. Without actually mentioning Daimler's ill-fated 1998 acquisition of Chrysler, he added, "What we did then is the exact opposite of what we are doing now."
Instead of deciding to merge and then figuring out what to do together, Renault-Nissan and Daimler started with specific projects, among them the development of 3- and 4-cylinder motors for small cars, and a light commercial vehicle for urban areas to be introduced next year. The partnership works because it is based on pragmatic goals rather than a grand strategy dictated from above, Dr. Zetsche and Mr. Ghosn said.

Their advice in a nutshell - alliances shouldn't start conceptually, from the top and then be made concrete. They should include, out of the box, an initial, real, grassroots project that delivers value to both sides and shows them they can work together.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Netflix's Reed Hastings: "I messed up" in communicating price increases

In a rare example of an authentic CEO apology, Netflix's Reed Hastings published a letter to customers in which he took responsibility for, and apologized for, the recent confusion and controversy over the company's decision to split its pricing plans, with separate charges for DVD and streaming. He did this in conjunction with formally separating the DVD business unit into a separate company, named Qwikster. Here's an excerpt:

I messed up. I owe everyone an explanation.

It is clear from the feedback over the past two months that many members felt we lacked respect and humility in the way we announced the separation of DVD and streaming, and the price changes. That was certainly not our intent, and I offer my sincere apology. I’ll try to explain how this happened.

For the past five years, my greatest fear at Netflix has been that we wouldn't make the leap from success in DVDs to success in streaming. Most companies that are great at something – like AOL dialup or Borders bookstores – do not become great at new things people want (streaming for us) because they are afraid to hurt their initial business. Eventually these companies realize their error of not focusing enough on the new thing, and then the company fights desperately and hopelessly to recover. Companies rarely die from moving too fast, and they frequently die from moving too slowly.

When Netflix is evolving rapidly, however, I need to be extra-communicative. This is the key thing I got wrong.

In hindsight, I slid into arrogance based upon past success. We have done very well for a long time by steadily improving our service, without doing much CEO communication. Inside Netflix I say, “Actions speak louder than words,” and we should just keep improving our service.

But now I see that given the huge changes we have been recently making, I should have personally given a full justification to our members of why we are separating DVD and streaming, and charging for both. It wouldn’t have changed the price increase, but it would have been the right thing to do.

Some smart people are saying that what Netflix is doing, in spite of the negative publicity, is exactly the right thing to do, and the right time to do it. By demonstrating fallibility and humility, Hastings is doing what he can to soften the blow to customers, while not reversing or altering his strategic decision.

Related Post: Subsequently, Netflix backs off - a little - their radical restructuring

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Use It or Lose It

I have a wireless modem that work gave me. I got it because I'm on the road so much and WiFi is often either unavailable or expensive. This summer, I went through a few months where I didn't travel at all, a highly unusual occurrence, and didn't use my wireless modem during this time.

Then I was back on the road and started using it again. A few days later, it didn't work. I called the IT department, and they asked me to try a couple of things. No use. They called me back and said, "Have you been using this modem?" "Yes, though not for a while this summer." "OK, I found out that the CEO needed a wireless modem and it looks like we gave your account to him."

Then, a joke: "Tell the CEO he has my modem and to give it back," and a grumble, and finally acceptance. Then a realization that because I hadn't been diligent about using this device an objective observer might think I didn't need it, and, "Sure, we have an open account we can give to the CEO."

Lesson: use it or lose it. People looking at spreadsheets may not know or care about your travel schedule. If you have an asset and don't put it to use, don't complain if it's taken away from you.

Thankfully, I did get my account restored. And I'm using it regularly.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Royal Little: Ignorance isn't bliss when you're an investor

Another story from Textron founder Royal Little (1896-1989), author of "How to Lose $100,000,000 and Other Valuable Advice." In spite of his wealth of mistake stories, Little was one of the most successful US businessmen of the mid-1900s.


During this period of rapid expansion, we noticed that the stocks of publishing businesses were selling at an unusually high multiple, and, although we had had no experience whatseoever in the publishing business, we thought it might improve our multiple of we bought a couple of businesses in the field.

The first one that was brought to our attention was Medical Opinion and Review, which was owned by two individuals. They had built a very profitable operation providing the doctors in the country with up-to-date information on all medical research and other medical information in summary form so that the doctors could get this information without having to read all the complicated medical journals and other sources.

They built up pretax earnings of $1 million, but since they had no fixed assets and only receivables from the drug manufacturers who were supporting the operation with their advertisements, the company had very little net worth. In October 1969, we made arrangements with the owners to buy their stock for $4.5 million in cash, or approximately nine times aftertax earnings. The sellers had to pay capital gains taxes on the transaction, but they both ended up as millionaires. We had hoped, of course, that they would work as hard in the future as they had in the past and that our investment would prove to be a successful one.

Unfortunately, the partner who did the editorial work providing the important information for the publication decided that he wanted to retire. The other partner, who handled the distribution and solicitation of advertising, was left without a competent editor. As a result the advertisers discontinued using the publication to reach doctors and Medical Opinion and Review suddenly became a loser instead of a winner.

Since our experience in the past had been primarily with manufacturing operations, we had no one in the organization competent to rehabilitate that division. After that disaster, we practically gave the business back to the remaining former owner and took our loss.

ADVICE #1: Don't get involved in the publishing business if your principal business has been manufacturing - particularly if you have made the former owners wealthy.

ADVICE #2: (This second bit of advice applies to all types of acquisitions.) Be very careful not to buy businesses that have earnings but no net worth. If the earnings evaporate, you have no escape route to recover any portion of your investment.

Monday, September 12, 2011

"You can't fire me - you don't even work here!"

Another story from entrepreneur and venture capitalist Albert Wenger:

I know of a subsequently very successful entrepreneur who in the early days of his first company was so mortified of having to fire someone that he sent in his wife instead to do it. When the employee in question caught on to what was happening, he said to the wife: “You can’t fire me, you don’t even work here” to which she apparently replied “yes, that’s the point — neither do you.” The next day the entrepreneur decided he needed to hire a right hand person who could help with this going forward!

I hope this entrepreneur eventually got the courage to do difficult tasks like this himself. However, I'm very impressed with his wife--there's no doubt about her courage!

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Steve Jobs in 1997: "You can't start with the technology and figure out how to sell it"

Steve Jobs has been getting a lot of press recently, as if he needed that. But this clip was referenced by VC Brad Feld and is tailor-made for this site. Jobs is answering a confrontational question at the Apple Worldwide Developers Conference in 1997, soon after he returned for his second act at Apple.

The meat of the story, at least for me, happens at 2:00, right after Jobs states that design should start with the customer experience and work backward. He lays out that starting with great technology and figuring out how to market it is wrong--and he says that he himself has made this mistake "more than anyone else in this room."

Also, while clearly under attack, Jobs shows his maturity by not only not immediately getting defensive or attacking his questioner, but in fact taking some time to reflect and think, during a high-pressure, public address, and ultimately giving a powerfully thoughtful response. We can all learn from that.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Albert Wenger: when you have to fire someone, don't dither

This story is from entrepreneur and venture capitalist Albert Wenger's blog Continuations:

Firing is probably the hardest thing to do and I was terrible at it at first as an entrepreneur. I put off firing my first mis-hire (a developer) for weeks while I was looking for ways to fix a situation that couldn’t and shouldn’t have been salvaged. There were (and often are) difficult additional considerations such as the employee’s personal financial situation. In the end once I had done it the impact on team morale and productivity was tremendous and I realized I had dithered. A tough lesson to learn and while firing never got any emotionally easier for me at least I knew not to let it drag.

There are a lot of hiring stories on the site but many fewer firing stories. People have to be fired on occasion and doing it properly is difficult. But, as Albert writes later in his post, "Always keep in mind that much as the firing may be difficult for you, it is more difficult for the person being fired and putting it off or doing it in a disrespectful fashion only makes matters worse." I've been on both sides of the "firing line" and I can tell you that Albert speaks the truth.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Only one person can make the call

This story is from Enrique Salem, president and CEO of tech-security supplier Symantec, as presented in Adam Bryant's superb "Corner Office" column in the New York Times:

I was captain of the varsity football team my senior year of high school. We called the plays the coach would signal in to us from the sideline. I used to be very much a student of the game. I would watch the game films myself and get ideas of what we should do, what we should think about.

One time the coach called a defensive play and I changed it, and after having some success with that I said, “Oh, this isn’t so hard.” But then another player runs on the field and replaces me, and I run to the bench and the coach says, “When you want to call what I’m calling, you can go back in the game.” So I sat on the bench for a play or two and then went over and said: “O.K., Coach. I got it. I’m sorry.” And he put me back in the game. I really learned this notion that whoever’s making the calls, you’ve got to listen to that person.

And he pulled me aside after the game and we talked about it, and he said: “I know you love the game. I know you study the game. But you’ve got to realize that when I make calls, I’m setting something up. I’m looking at something that’s happening, and you can’t be out there second-guessing me on this.” I still remember that story. In business, somebody has to make the call.