Wisdom Traditions in the Workplace?

I (foolishly) missed the Wisdom 2.0 conference in SF in May (next one is Feb ’11), but I watched some of the videos with fascination here. I think the explosion in current neuroscience research is going to show that the ability to sink into a state of focused attention (aka “flow”) at work yields great results, and meditation might be one of the vehicles that helps get people there. Tonight there was a meetup of a handful of the Wisdom 2.0 folks at Samovar in SF, so I set out into the fog…

Soren Gordhamer (@soreng) from the Fetzer Institute led the conversation, and it was a lively mix of people from Fetzer, the SF Zen Center (@latrippi), SFSU (@jonathanrood), CIIS, and a handful of independent folks that did everything from ethics consulting (@k8ethics) to programming.  Fetzer’s stated mission is “to help bring the power of love, forgiveness, and compassion to the center of community life” and the Wisdom 2.0 conference brings together technology leaders and people from wisdom traditions, to explore the intersection of the two.

Tonight’s conversation was about how wisdom and mindfulness can play a role in the business world, and how the avalanche of ever-changing technology causing endless distractions can coexist with practices like mindfulness meditation.

People were interested in research on how mindfulness/wisdom practices could be put to good use in the workplace, both by individuals, and by organizations, and in what ways those might be measurable.  In a lot of ways, this reminds me of the coaching profession 20-30 years ago – even though it was producing results that people felt good about, it wasn’t being measured in terms of ROI. Now there have been numerous studies on the ROI of coaching, it’s a provable win, and as a result, over 70% of the fortune 500 utilizes coaching for top performers. Will mindfulness follow the same path, initial brought in my early adopters who “know” it’s the right thing, but eventually the topic of whitepapers and research that prove its ROI to the skeptical COO’s who have to justify spending money on company-wide programs?

Another interesting topic was: do we introduce mindfulness practice into the workplace with a sort of “melting pot of wisdom traditions” background, including contemplative practices in Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, Zen Buddhist, Sufism, etc, or do we go the “vanilla” route of just saying it’s useful, and quoting all of the neuroscience literature, and leave the roots of these traditions behind in the workplace? When we brought yoga teachers to Critical Path in 1998 (before it was a must-have at tech startups), we screened for teachers who were less likely to talk about “exploring spirituality through yoga” and more likely to talk about “stretching your body to feel great,” and it worked just fine. A big victory was getting the folks from BizDev to come to the classes with the Development team. Some of us went on to explore the spiritual side of yoga once they got the moves down; I trained as a yoga teacher in 2002.

Finally, we talked about the ever-increasing level of interruption caused by Twitter, FB, mobile phones, and all of the other electronics that are becoming de rigeur (and I admit I took two phonecalls during the meetup, just to offer an example of the always-connected life). We wondered if Fetzer could play a role in aggregating the current studies about neuroscience and how brains, productivity, and happiness are affected by varying levels of connectedness. I’d like to see this done without making value judgements (at least not initially) about what level of connectedness is “best”, but rather how they generate differing abilities to focus, and to be proactive vs. reactive (or whatever else they are causing our brains to do).

All in all, a super-interesting evening. Looking forward to the next meetup at the end of August. Thanks to Fetzer Institute for buying us tea and snackies, and hosting a great conversation!

Later-Stage CEO Influence on Product Design

In the early days of a startup, founders gets used to weighing in on decisions as they’re being made, especially on product features and design. It’s part of what makes the early days of startups go so quickly and efficiently – everyone is in one room collaborating on the one thing that matters: the first product.

As the company matures, someone other than the CEO will (hopefully) end up in charge of making design and feature decisions. The product manager (or someone else in a similar role) will work with mutiple parties to decide on an upcoming feature set, and then work with a design/development team on how it will work and look. There’s a more complex path toward making a decision, and hopefully a well-developed process that goes along with it.

In some cases, this will leave the CEO or other founders feeling adrift and left out of the development process. Software development tends to create one of the more tangible results at a startup, and it’s tempting, especially on a day where other things are frustrating, to roll by a developer’s desk “just to take a peek”. Looking at the latest version will in turn prompt one to ask questions, give feedback, and it can often lead to changes in designs and plans.

The challenge is that if another staff member rolls by a developer’s desk, it’s relatively easy for a developer to refer them to the product manager if they have suggestions. If the CEO does this, it’s not always clear if they’re acting as the CEO (and thus their suggestions trump everyone else’s), or if they’re acting as an interested staff member (and their suggestions should be taken with a grain of salt and run by whoever is in charge).

Almost without fail, if the CEO or founder tries to exert influence without going through the person who is in charge of product decisions, it’s confusing to the developer, and confounding to whatever process is already in place. It’s also a FAIL for the company: you have two people competing to do the same job.

If you find yourself in this situation, what to do? The CEO may be reticent to let go of their influence – it’s fun to talk to developers about what they’re doing, and even more fun to dream up new features.  Here are the steps I’ve found useful:

(1) Make Giving Input Predictable and Easy

Make sure you have a process that solicits input on design or features from the CEO and other stakeholders at known, published times. Being able to say “we have a standing design meeting on Tuesdays at 2p”, or “I’ll come by your office every other morning at 10:30 to show you what you’re working on” will help get things moving in the right direction. If you can’t meet directly with the someone, it may be worth it to send them screenshots and explanations, and let them know feedback will be accepted for a limited amount of time.

(2) Explain to the CEO what Impact they’re Creating

The CEO needs to understand what the repercussions are of making decisions on the fly without the product manager – you want to speak from the perspective of the company having great products and a great process for creating them, rather than criticizing the CEO for wanting to give input. Also valuable to stay away from critique of the CEO’s input – it doesn’t matter if it’s great, or terrible; it matters that it’s at the wrong time to be useful. Also pointing out that developers don’t know who’s in charge or who makes decisions also helps in getting the point across.

(3) Train Developers to say “No” or “Maybe”

Half the battle is convincing the developers that it’s OK to say no, and the other half is convincing the CEO that stopping by their desk won’t create instant change. It may take explaining this to both parties, multiple times, to get the point across. You will need to make the point to both parties that the way to get things changed is to talk to the Product Manager, not the developer.  If you find the developers are still getting bugged too much, you may need to create “office hours” where they’re willing to answer questions from the rest of the staff, so that the rest of the time, they’re working and off limits.

(4) Extra Credit: Teach the CEO to Act like a Peer when Offering Suggestions

A CEO is used to wielding total influence; it’s an advanced skill to tone down their influence on purpose, and some just won’t go for it. The goal is the for the CEO to sit down and say “right now, I’m going to act as your peer, not the CEO… I might have suggestions, but if I do, we’re running them by the product manager”. If the CEO is willing to take this on, they will be able to collaborate with developers in a new way, and their input will be much easier to absorb. I’ve had limited success with this one, but when it works, it gives the CEO access to what they really want: intimate conversation with the developer(s) about what is possible to create.

Founder Happiness

Startup Happiness

As an executive coach, I end up talking to a lot of startup founders; I’ve also been one myself, with two successful exits. I’ve noticed that there is a relatively common phase in being part of a founding team that is rarely talked about, so it goes almost unnoticed. It’s the phase where a founder becomes dissatisfied with their role in the company, and has to decide what comes next.

The founder’s lack of enthusiasm doesn’t generally make news: they mask their dissatisfaction until they decide what to do. The process of realizing that something needs to shift, figuring out what it is, and actually taking steps to make a change all happen behind the scenes, and with as little fanfare as possible. The end result can be small but powerful course corrections that are completely internal to the company, or an announcement of a new role or a departure.

That process is more fascinating, and more fraught with challenges than most people imagine. As an executive coach, I have the honor of helping startup founders see the landscape clearly, lay out possible options, test out ideas and possibilities to gather more data, think through options to make the best decision, and then to follow through in the best way for themselves and their companies.

Company founders start with a huge amount of enthusiasm, and the challenge of building a business from the ground up.  Those challenges are a good fit for most entrepreneurs – the work is fast paced, there are lots of interesting challenges, and they are constantly being stretched and tested in new ways. Although the process can be exhausting, most people in this phase are working at their edge, and energized by all the activity and change. During this phase, if an entrepreneur gets stuck, it’s not due to boredom.

If a founder is profoundly lucky and skillful, their company may reach a point, after several years, where they have become a known success. They are one of the top companies in their market segment, and instead of changing continuously, the organization is focused on consistency and predictability, moving into new market segments, improving processes, reducing costs, and maintaining and improving existing products.

It’s during this phase that some founders get stuck. The paradox is this: they have achieved the level of success that most people only hope for, so the majority of people around them are saying “Wow, congratulations… You did it! That’s so awesome! You must be thrilled!” They may also be a minor celebrity in relation to their own company – as the founder, they are the keeper of the company’s early lore and stories, magazines want to interview them, they are recognized and sought after at social events, and depending on the size of the company, even employees often get a big thrill by spending time with members of the mythical founding team.

But in the quiet moments of their lives, they’re asking themselves: “How come this isn’t fun anymore? If I built this company, why don’t I love my job? What am I supposed to do now?”

When they realize they are at this point, most founders are profoundly sad. They started on a journey many years ago to do something that seemed barely possible, built a team that they worked shoulder to shoulder with, demonstrated extreme passion for achieving each milestone, and told anyone who would listen “I’m a founder at company XYZ” with enthusiasm and pride.  It’s a core part of their identity, and they can’t imagine not being a part of the team and business that they helped to create.

Initially it’s hard for many founders to even talk about this conflict – it seems almost disloyal to not love their work, and by association, the company that they built from the ground up.  The information that a founder is dissatisfied isn’t generally in anyone’s best interest to broadcast, so founders can have a difficult time deciding who is safe to talk to. The interpersonal dynamics between founders, boards, executive teams, and investors can be fraught with challenges and competing priorities.

Because it’s hard to talk about, and hard to find someone to talk to, many founders stay quiet and stuck in this situation for far longer than they need to.

Often, my work is helping founders understand what their options are, and how to get to a place where they are happy and energized again.  Sometimes it’s just a single founder who needs to make a shift, and sometimes it’s the whole organization or culture. But if you’re the founder who is unhappy in your current role, it’s well worth figuring out what needs to change, and taking steps to make it happen. Your happiness depends on it!

What’s your career story arc? What creates a sense of “flow” for you?

One of the fascinating parts of my job is that I sometimes get to listen to the story of someone’s career from start to finish. I have them begin with being a little kid in school, and talk about what they studied, how school was for them, what beliefs their family had about work and accomplishment, and every job they’ve held leading up to present day.  I get to find out what they loved most, what grated on them horribly, and what their patterns are around work, colleagues, partners, and so on.

I find  that *everyone* has an career story arc with common elements that form a discernable pattern. Even people who have held wildly different jobs during their career have striking commonalities, especially in the positions or situations that they loved most. They’ll often describe one or more positions during which they were able to create “flow“. When they describe these situations, their eyes light up and you can feel the excitement and love for the work they were doing.

As each person matures in their abilities and skills, the situations that create flow change: what was challenging and energizing 10 years ago becomes rote, or at least has to be approached in a different way. A great manager will be looking to understand what each person loves most, and to create that flow experience for their staff as often as possible by matching the right assignments with the right people. When you can do that as a manager, you have people practically clawing their way into the office every morning. Flow is addictive!

Delivering Happiness by Tony Hsieh: Failures and Pivots along the road to Happiness

Last night I read most of Tony Hsieh’s new book Delivering Happiness, due out in June.  In it, he describes his career as an entrepreneur from the age of nine, when he started a worm farm in his parents backyard (not a single worm lived through the month!).

I was struck, especially after my last post, at how many different businesses he tried in his life before he started Zappos, and how many were either “meh”, or failed completely. Here is a fairly complete list:

  • worm farm (fail)
  • garage sales (meh)
  • neighborhood newletter (fail)
  • paper route (meh)
  • custom button making (success)
  • greeting card sales (fail)
  • magic trick mail order sales (fail)
  • crowdsourced study guide (success)
  • games tester for LucasFilm (meh)
  • programming job at GDI (meh)
  • Quincy House Grill at Harvard (success)
  • Oracle (meh)
  • LinkExchange (success)
  • Zappos (success)

Throughout his life, he has been continually trying new things, and gaining experience at succeeding, failing, and making decisions about when to keep going, and when to give up.

If you look at Zappos today, it seems like they’re on top of the world. But when you read Tony’s book, there have been some harrowing and very risky pivots they undertook to get to where they are.

Here are the Cliff Notes : Zappos started as a web-based company that contracted with shoe brands to drop-ship product to customers. It was hard to convince large brands to do business with them, so they bought a retail store to have access to more brands. A large percent of customer purchases were late or never delivered. They started stocking products in their office to increase reliability, outgrew the office space, and rented space across the street. They dumped their drop-ship business (which accounted for significant revenue), so that they could make reliability a cornerstone rather than a hope. They outsourced their warehousing operation to a vendor in Kentucky, lost 20% of their inventory in a truck crash, watched the oursourcer fail, then built their own warehouse operation in Kentucky. Tony sold everything he owned to raise money to buy more inventory. They decided that customer service was their #1 priority, and moved the entire company to Las Vegas. During all of this, they almost ran out of money multiple times, and had to negotiate with vendors, investors, and employees to try to bridge the gap, as well as sell off everything Tony owned to make payroll and stock inventory.

The end of the story is something we all know now: He went on to create a very inspiring culture where “Delivering Happiness” is the company’s brand promise. (As an ex-raver , any CEO who bases his company on the concept of PLUR warms my heart. I’d love to go out dancing with him and the Zappos folks someday).

But along the way, Tony and his team has learned to stay creative, positive, and solution-focused in the face of dire, difficult circumstances.  Then, and only then, did they arrive at the place where they could choose to create happiness, rather than just staying afloat.

Business Failure Hurts, Bad

I had a great talk today with a dear friend about the demise of his business that he had invested heart and soul in, and about the rise and fall of Critical Path (where I was co-founder during Web 1.0 boom and bust). People tend to talk a lot about what circumstances or decisions cause a business to fail, but not much about how it feels.

I know from experience how awful this is: if I had to pick the most poignant day in my career, it would be a toss-up between (a) the day I had to lay off 10 close friends from the company they’d helped me take public, and (b) the day the news broke that last quarter’s earnings were falsified, and the stock plummeted to under $1. (It wasn’t the money that bugged me, although that was awful too; it was the shame of having the company I’d helped to create tarnished by underhanded business dealings.)


Originally uploaded by Erik Charlton

As an entrepreneur, you are probably spending more hours a day on your business than you would with your significant other, and maybe even your child. You’re pouring so much energy into it that you end up identifying with it, as if it is a part of you. Every time you pass out a business card for your new venture, you’re essentially saying “this is me; this is my dream! come join me! the world will be a better place when it has this thing!” After months and months of doing that, the business name might as well be your last name… And you pretty much *have* to be this crazy, this passionate, and this committed, to have a chance as making something work.

When your business doesn’t work out, or when you get forced out, what do you do?

If you lost your partner, you would grieve, nonstop, for weeks or sometimes even months. No one would ask you “so, will you be registering on match.com?”  So when you lose your business, why do people think it’s OK to say “wow, tough luck”, and then in the next breath, to ask cheerfully “so, what’s next for you?” as if there is no emotional content to having a business fail whatsoever?

My guess is that people are uncomfortable with grief, and maybe don’t understand what a big deal it is to have your startup collapse. I’m all about helping people have more success, more happiness, and more joy in their work and their lives. But if you’ve just been through a dramatic business failure, you will likely be consumed by that experience, and you won’t be able to pull through to the other side until you’ve dealt with it. And, if you don’t deal with it, stuff will pop up at inopportune times. You get to do it now, or do it later. Might as well tackle it while it’s fresh…

Take some time to be sad. The five stages of grief will apply:

Denial – “I feel fine.”; “This can’t be happening, not to me.”

Anger – “Why me? It’s not fair!”; “How can this happen to me?”; “Who is to blame?”

Bargaining – “I’ll do anything if it will make my business go”; “I will give my life savings if…”

Depression – “Why bother with anything?”; “What’s the point?”; “Business just sucks”

Acceptance – “It’s going to be okay.”; “There is something else out there for me.”

You might have to give your close friends some cues so they know where you’re at, and how to support you. You might want to lay low for a while, but don’t do it for too long. If you’re supporting a friend who lost this business, you can always ask what would be most helpful. Just having someone to talk to that doesn’t have any agenda is a great starting point.

It’s only when you get to Acceptance that you will have the energy and perspective to choose something new that isn’t a reaction to what just happened. Just like when you break up with a partner, you might think “I’m unloveable” or “I’ll never meet another person as perfect for me as so-and-so”. Then with time and perspective, they get to see that they learned some valuable lessons, had some fun times, had some hard times, and they’re ready for something new.

In hindsight, you’re going to get to say exactly the same thing about a business failure: you learned some valuable lessons, you had some fun times, you had some hard times, and now, the person you became by doing all those things is ready for something new.

Thanks for sticking with this; it’s a hard topic, but seemed worth an entry, since it’s rarely talked about.

Diving into Advance copy of Open Leadership by Charlene Li

Last night I checked my mailbox, and was excited to see my advance copy of Charlene Li’s new book “Open Leadership: How Social Technology Can Transform the Way You Lead“.  I mowed through the first three chapters before bedtime. While it’s definitely a book advocating for business to be more open, and has plenty of great stories of business success based on the leaders’ openness, she also provide tangible guidelines for choosing which avenues of openness will work best for your business now, and how to put policies in place to make openness successful within your company’s culture. I’m pleased to see that in addition to advocating and storytelling, there is plenty of very practical and useful “how to”.

Clearly the age of openness in business is upon us; Charlene is helping to point the way forward.  I’m looking forward to digging in to the rest of the book!