Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Stop saying "I think"

I have spent much of my career working alongside salespeople, helping to sell software products to businesses. The best salespeople had a knack for candid and crisp communication, with prospects and colleagues.

One such salesperson took me aside one day after a sales meeting where I had demoed our product for a prospect.

"Can I give you some feedback?" he said (note: this is an excellent way to approach a critique).


"Can you stop saying 'I think' so much?"

"I say 'I think' a lot?"

"When a customer asks how to do something with our system, you say, 'I think you would do this, then this.' You know the answer, but you say 'I think' anyway. It confuses the prospect and makes them unsure. Does that make sense?"

I realized that I used 'I think' as a tic or to indicate that everything has some uncertainty with it. But  prospects heard it as a lack of confidence - deadly in a complex sale.

Since that time,  I have tried to be more direct and leave out tentative words like "I think" when I'm talking to customers or executives.

I'm also sensitive to others demonstrating this same tic. I heard a few "I thinks" this morning from a tech guy addressing customers, and that brought this story to mind.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Another gem from Plain Dealer's "My Biggest Mistake" - Learning from a rapid international expansion

The Plain Dealer's "My Biggest Mistake" series by Marcia Pledger is the best resource for mistake stories anywhere, and should be regular reading for anyone who visits this site. This story is from Sudarshan Sathe, CEO of New Concepts, Inc., a Solon, Ohio, company that provides products and services to the steel industry.

A couple of years after I started a metals brokering company that caters to the steel industry, business took off. I was driving to Canada every week and flying to London several times a year.

I made the mistake of opening offices in those countries -- even though they were one-person operations -- so I could better serve customers in those markets. I thought that there would be active growth in those markets beyond what we were already doing and that failed to materialize.

The problem was I'm a hands-on manager and I was not able to properly manage the people in offices so far away. Infrequent phone calls and technology just isn't the same as face-to-face conversations. Managing is a two-way street. With offices so far away, I didn't get to interact with them and learn from them either. Those far-away offices could not connect with the rhythm and flow of the main office. The loss of that kind of connection was the cause of failure....

As always, I consider any difficulty to be a cause for self-examination. I did a lot of introspection. Then I realized I had to close the Canadian office, which I did after two years and the London office after nearly four years.

When you make a mistake you have to come face to face with yourself and see what part of your personality made it possible. I learned I like to be personally involved with the work. I'm not the type of person who can be a hands-off manager. It's a small operation and I have a certain way of doing things, which worked. I wanted to see it continue. But I had to find a new way to grow. And I knew I had to do it closer to home.

In 2008, I bought a well-established company in the wastewater treatment field.

But after my experience of trying to operate satellite offices in London and Canada, even Eastlake seemed too far [25 miles] away. Despite the expense, I moved the five-employee company to Solon, where my other company is located.

Mistakes in business or in life emanate from you. The challenge is to recognize them and work on correcting those within you. As an Indian philosopher has said, "The world is a mirror. What you see in the world is your own reflection."

Note that Sathe never points fingers at anyone but himself. This shows a sense of agency and ownership that will serve him well. He also learned from his international experience, and put that learning into practice when he invested in moving his acquired company so he could spend more time with its team face to face.

Mistakes you will make. They will cost you. But taking accountability for them, learning from them, and applying that learning will repay you handsomely.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Katherine Hays of GenArts discusses two hiring mistakes

If you count the number of mistakes people in business talk about, hiring is one of the top categories. There must be something about trying to assess someone's strengths, weaknesses, and cultural fit that exposes many of our weaknesses and biases. This story is from Katherine Hays, CEO of GenArts, a visual-effects software company. The interview is part of the Corner Office series by Adam Bryant in the New York Times.

Hays gets right to the meat of discussing learning and improvement ("what a shame if you're not continuing to build on them very deliberately), and volunteers a mistake story straightaway - and what she took away from it.

[Bryant] What else have you learned about leadership?

[Hays] It’s important to keep things in context, whether it’s good news or bad news. Either can be very distracting to the team. I’m pretty good at keeping those in context and focusing on the task at hand. Some of the boards I’ve worked with are really good at that as well. They just don’t overreact, no matter what the news is.

Those things came naturally to me. That being said, I think being a great leader is like being a great athlete. You can start with some natural abilities, but what a shame if you’re not continuing to build on them very deliberately, and continuing to kind of push yourself out of your comfort zone, trying to understand what you’re missing, and what you can learn from other people.

[Bryant] Any other lessons?

[Hays] Being very good at hiring people is key. And I would say I made two mistakes in hiring. Both times they had all the right answers to the questions, amazing backgrounds, really strong résumés, but my gut just said, hmm, this doesn’t feel right. And I didn’t listen to myself, and I hired them, and it was a mistake. I couldn’t articulate what it was that didn’t feel right, which is why I think I convinced myself to hire them. But something felt less than genuine about them.

So the lesson there was, at the end of the day, even if everything seems to check out, you listen to your gut. And I’ve given that guidance to a lot of my team. If they come in and they say, “You know, something doesn’t feel right,” I say, “Don’t hire them.” Far better to pass on someone than to bring the wrong person into the team.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Tim Berry audio story - on overestimating people early on

Another story from my 2010 conversation with Palo Alto Software founder (and superb blogger) Tim Berry. (The entire discussion can be found here.) In this story, Tim discusses a "long-term mistake" of his, and how he compensated for it.

Tim Berry - "I consistently overvalue people early on" (mp3 - 2m10s) - right-click to download.


I've never been a gun person, but I gather that the weapon sometimes has a natural lean to the left, or the rifle comes out high or the rifle comes out low. You get to know the weapon. And the markspeople compensate for that natural misalignment of the weapon by knowing that they need to aim slightly to the right or slightly up.

So I think of that analogy when I recognize that, through the years that I've been running a business, since 1983, when I went out on my own, I consistently overvalue people early on, early in the relationship. I've learned, with job interviews, and managing people, I've learned that this is a weakness, this is a flaw. And I know after I've finished the interview that I'm going to come out too up on that person. So I've tried through the years to recognize that and compensate. For example, when I was running the company, I started to get other people into the interviews to compensate. For example, for years, I'd never hire anybody until my wife had met and approved that person. Because she had better people skills.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Restaurateur Barbara Lynch learns from the failure of her produce store

There's a lot impressive about this interview with Boston restaurateur Barbara Lynch in the New York Times, but Lynch's crisp summary of her biggest failure, including what she learned and a bonus lesson, stood out to me:
Q. What failures have you learned the most from?

A. I haven't had many failures but one was to open a produce store called Plum Produce in the South End of Boston. It was basically a beautiful little storefront in which we had porcini mushrooms, heirloom apples, all sorts of produce from the local farmers who supplied the restaurants. But when I opened it in 2006, the South End was filled with young professionals who didn't like to cook during the week. My lesson was to do more research and understand the challenges of retail more.

Q. Anything else you would do differently?

A. My advice would be, try to own the property. I don't care if it's a garage but buy it because with me, nine restaurants later, I don't own any of my buildings. I lease.

Lynch owns several restaurants, two bars and a catering company in Boston.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Carol Dweck interviewed... and learning to type

Harvard Business Review has released an 18-minute interview with the author of one of our favorite books of 2011, Stanford scholar Carol Dweck. She discusses her favorite subject (and one of ours): fixed and growth mindsets.

The entire interview is great, but one powerful section discusses how to give feedback when things don't go as planned. It's as good a summary of the value of companies learning from mistakes and failure as I've seen. Says Dweck:

The person giving the feedback needs to focus on...how they engaged in the process, maybe as a team, what strategies they tried, how they gauge when and whether those strategies were being successful, whether they were sensitive enough to change strategies when they were starting to get the negative feedback. How they went forward, how they corrected themselves. And why, in the end, it might not have worked and what they might do differently next time.

One CEO I talked to rewards value added. Being able to put knowledge or skills back into the company - even when a project wasn't successful.

[Interviewer] Can you say a little more about that? What do you mean, "putting back into the company"?

[Dweck] What did a team or a person learn from an effort, even when it wasn't successful? Many successful people - Einstein, Thomas Edison - say they've learned more from their failures than often from their successes. So many huge breakthroughs came after a number of huge failures that provided learning experiences. You're not going to reward someone just because they failed, but what did the journey teach them that will help them and others in the company become successful the next time? So as people are engaging in a process, in a project, they are monitoring what worked and what didn't, to feed it back into the company to make it a communal learning experience, the more that is reward-worthy.

Here's a personal growth-mindset story. One winter in my mid-thirties, I went through a slow phase at work. I decided that I should learn to touch-type. After twenty-plus years of two-finger typing (including writing a novel and writing thousands of lines of code), I downloaded a typing tutor and, over a two month period, learned to touch type. It was difficult. I was utterly incompetent. But with practice, I was able to learn it.

This is one of my favorite memories. I thought I might be too old (and too accomplished) to learn much new. Instead, with practice, I went from not being able to do something to having that ability.

You can access the full Carol Dweck interview here.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Gilt Groupe CEO: Relearning that "References matter most" in hiring

From "How I Did It: Gilt Groupe's CEO on Building a Team of A Players" in the Jan-Feb 2012 Harvard Business Review. The author is Kevin Ryan, CEO of flash sale site Gilt Groupe.

I don't think there's a science to recruiting, but I do some things differently. The hiring process typically has three elements: the resume, the interview and the reference check. Most managers overvalue the resume and interview and undervalue the reference check. References matter most....

The presumption is that reference checks aren't worth much because people are scared to say anything negative. That's a valid concern, because there have been lawsuits. But the way around it is to dig up people who'll speak candidly. Invariably, they're people you know personally or people you can network to find. You can't simply rely on the names a candidate supplies....

We don't always get this right. For one hire, an outside recruiter that helped with the search had checked some of the references. Ordinarily we try to do this ourselves. The man didn't work out - it was just a bad fit. After he left, I ran into a couple of people I knew: one who had worked for the guy at another company and one who'd done business with him as a banker. I hadn't realized that either of them knew him. They told me exactly what they thought of him - which jibed exactly with our negative experience. Sometimes you don't hear an honest assessment till it's too late.

Sometimes a mistake takes you someplace new - other times it reinforces (with a jolt) what you already know. This story is one of those other times.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Tiny Tim takes a do-over

This story came to mind recently because I've been spending more time visiting my parents, who are now both in their mid-late 80's. I'm feeling that my time with them is growing short, and every visit prompts reflections, often on the drive back home, of times past.

My dad once got tickets to a concert, which was a very unusual occurrence. This was in the '70's, before there were casinos in our area, but it was a casino-type show featuring Tiny Tim - a ukulele player who sang in a quavering falsetto. It is very hard to describe his kind of performance, and almost harder to explain his popularity in the 1960s and 1970s.

I was a teenager, and already at the stage where I didn't want to do anything with my parents, least of all see Tiny Tim in concert. But I went, reluctantly (I did most things reluctantly those days).

The show started. There was something wrong with the PA system. The sound was broken up, and dropped out for stretches at a time. The monitors must have worked OK, because Tim kept going for three or four songs before someone got word to him that the sound was messed up. He stopped. I was slunk down in my seat - it was excruciating.

They fixed the sound in a few minutes, and he kicked off again. But wait... he restarted from the first song. Teenage me was mortified. He was heaping embarrassment on top of failure. What a disaster! Those four songs took forever, and the remainder of the concert crawled by.

I took stock as I left; that was likely to be the worst show I would ever see in my life. Bad music, bad sound - and a do-over!

My parents had a different view. "What a performer!" they said. "How brave of him to keep going, and even to redo the songs we hadn't heard." I thought they were insane.

Now, as I look back, I have a lot more respect for Tiny Tim, and for my parents' assessment of the concert. It would have been easy for him to storm off in a huff when the sound failed - he wasn't the sound guy, after all. Or he could have run through the rest of his set quickly and gotten out of there; no one would have blamed him for that. But, instead, he thought of his audience. He thought of my parents. They had paid good money for those tickets; they deserved the best show he could give. And they deserved the entire show. So he took a risk and restarted.

It takes a lot of courage to be a performer, and that same courage is useful in many areas of life - when trying something new, when making a break with the past, when standing up for your beliefs. When faced with those situations, perhaps I'll wonder, "What Would Tiny Tim Do?"

[As I wrote earlier, it's hard to describe a Tiny Tim performance. Fortunately, we have YouTube]

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Quicken admits a mistake and sets out a path to making it right

Karen Wilhelm of the Lean Reflections blog sent along this email she received, dated 22 December 2011:

Mac users have been steaming about this issue for some time. Intuit has never supported the Mac community very well (I run QuickBooks on Windows via Parallel - not a good solution by any means). And this falls short of an apology to users. "We have not always delivered on this promise" and "I understand the frustration" are a few steps below "I'm sorry." But the company does appear to be responding to the outcry from users.

It's interesting that the letter writer, Aaron Forth is an outsider to Intuit. He came to the company via its acquisition of Mint.com. Perhaps this made him more open to supporting the Mac community than Intuit lifers. What do you think?

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Pacific Gas & Electric incents inspectors to find fewer leaks, with tragic results

There was a tragic accounting of the cost of hiding mistakes in the San Francisco Chronicle this week. In a report on the San Bruno, California, gas explosion in September 2010 that killed eight people, the Chronicle indicted a culture of PG&E mistake-hiding that readers of this blog know creates bad outcomes.

The entire article is vital reading, but you can learn much of what you need to know by reading the story's lede:

Pacific Gas and Electric Co. long relied on leak surveys to determine that its gas transmission pipelines were safe even as it was handing out bonuses to supervisors whose crews found fewer leaks and kept repair costs down, a Chronicle investigation has found.

PG&E did not scrap the leak-related incentive system until two years before the September 2010 blast in San Bruno that killed eight people and destroyed 38 homes. It did so then only after three company whistle-blowers complained to PG&E's top officials and board of directors that the utility was encouraging supervisors to overlook possible safety threats.

The complaints led to an internal company audit in April 2008 that concluded the policy of providing incentives for finding fewer leaks encouraged crews to produce inaccurate surveys. The policy was among several factors keeping PG&E from being able to "effectively identify leaks and to reduce risks to employees and customer safety," the audit said.

Prompted by the audit's findings, PG&E conducted a rush inspection of its entire gas distribution and transmission system starting in October 2008. The surveys uncovered many more leaks than crews had found in checks performed since 2004.

[Thanks to Bob Sutton (@work_matters) for pointing to this article.]