Archive for the ‘Empathy’ Category

Cabals of Women

September 24, 2017

Sunday mornings are “read the paper” mornings for my wife and me. Today she got to the NY Times before me, and casually remarked “did you know there are cabals of women in Silicon Valley whose goal was to subjugate men?” Well, no dear, I didn’t. I worked there for a long time, never ran across those.

The article quoted an engineer who said “he had realized a few years ago that feminists in Silicon Valley had formed a cabal whose goal was to subjugate men.”

This so wholly encapsulates what happens when power shifts. The rising power scares the incumbent power. The rising power is demonized. Cabals. Subjugating men. Right.

The article was about how gender equality is faring in Silicon Valley, and shined a light on the fairly predictable “backlash” men are feeling as the tech industry, and society, come to terms with the inequities women face forging careers and lives in today’s society.

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Credit: Jordan Siemens/Getty Images

And I use the term “predictable” because women’s equality is fundamentally about the shift in power. Men following the lead women provide. Men taking direction from women. Nothing scary about that, unless you’ve never seen this before, never experienced it before. Fearing this change is actually to be expected. That doesn’t make the change any less important, or urgent.

No one gives up power easily. And the transition is messy, by definition. Will companies over-correct and set quotas? Sure. Will some leaders interpret this shift as a mandate? Likely. But the direction of change is the important factor to focus on.

That doesn’t diminish the merit of the objective, or the urgency to establish more inclusive, diverse, and equal workforces, and as important, the ability to measure members of the workforce on their contributions.

From a purely capitalist perspective, businesses should be running towards this change. That bastion of capitalism, McKinsey, has even coined a term for this business benefit – The Diversity Dividend. Businesses are performing less well than they would be with more women in leadership roles. Businesses are underperforming, and women (and minorities) are the key to improving business performance.

But I digress. Let’s get back to the men who are afraid of losing their power and role definition as we make this transition.

This quote summed it all up for me, from Jon Parsons, an attorney representing two male Yahoo employees: “No eyebrows are going to rise if a woman heads up fashion,” Mr. Parsons said. “But we’re talking about women staffing positions — things like autos — where it cannot be explained other than manipulation.”

And why might that be? Are men better at cars than women? So, women are better at fashion? How does that explain that the majority of fashion houses are led by men?

What Mr. Parsons is really saying is he’s comfortable with women having leadership positions in fields where he and his clients, presumably, do not have careers or interest. But when it comes to fields where men have been more historically leaders, well yes, men should be leaders. Well, because they always have been.

Welcome to a new world. It’s going to be a messy ride to get there. But we’re headed there. As uncomfortable and scary as that might be. And whatever discomfort that causes males as they make the adjustment, be patient. It’s taken women over 100 years to get to this juncture in the business world. Match their patience.

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I am a feminist because of my sons

November 27, 2016

I think I was part of the problem for longer than I realized.

As a man, I simply assumed everyone got treated the same. Got paid the same. Was listened to equally – because I sure was listened to. And they paid me well for what I did and said.

And then I started to feel naïve. At first it was noticing that the women on my teams seemed to be paid less than the men, for the same positions. Then I began to notice women get talked over. I began to see women apologize for voicing an opinion in a meeting. I saw men look right past women’s ideas and contributions. Rarely out of malice. Worse — out of blindness.

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I’ve come to realize that women do have a more difficult journey in society today, if they want to have the journey of opportunity and acceptance that men do. Society treats women differently, has different expectations of them.

And generally speaking the ones who notice this are women. Men mostly glide through their careers, like I used to. Thinking everyone is treated the same, with the same access to opportunity.

And I grew up in an era where the term “feminist” was synonymous with “radical” — a fringe viewpoint. A crazy, minority voice. But the more I noticed, the more it became urgently clear to me that “feminist” is not a fringe response to how women are treated in our society, it’s a sane, measured, reasonable response.

The more women outnumber men in education, the more they aspire to secure leadership positions and positions of authority, “Feminist” describes the moment of truth in society as it makes room for them. Learns to respect them, adjusts to following their lead. So yes, I am a feminist.

When I look back on the journey to this realization, it’s punctuated with some specific experiences. Sources of inspiration and heartbreak. But they share a common theme: an injustice.

THAT’S NOT MY IDEA

I was on a volunteer board almost a decade ago. It was for a public/private partnership where the other board members were the city manager, the chancellor of the local university, the head of the local community development authority, and others — staff from the city and university, local business leaders. The tone set by the city manager and chancellor was open and welcoming.

We were focused on building a business incubator facility. At the time we were in the early stages of site selection, budget sizing, and developing fundraising strategies.

There was one meeting I will always remember. We were in the midst of a fairly strident discussion of two different site alternatives and approaching an impasse. One of the city staff members spoke up and proposed a novel, creative third alternative. No one picked up on it. She suggested it again, no one picked up.

I spoke up, and said “Susan (not her real name) has a really good alternative” and I summarized it. Engaged conversation ensued. I was more than taken aback. When more than one person said “Let’s go with Pete’s idea,”  I had to stop the conversation to remind everyone that it was not my idea. It was Susan’s.

I was flabbergasted. Susan and I exchanged glances. Hers one of hurt and appreciation. She was a thoughtful, insightful human. Well versed on the pragmatics of city mechanics and finances. This was the first time I’d personally witnessed what I now know to be a common experience for women.

TRUE-ING UP SALARIES

In every role I have had as a manager, I’ve had to tackle the same problem. The women on my teams were generally not paid the same as the men. And I’ve worked for some of the most progressive and technologically advanced companies in the world. I know there were no overt intentions to pay women less than men for the same jobs, but it happened. Every time.

I coined a term for this: “true-ing up salaries.”

Today I am fortunate to work for a company that shares my values and vigilance. We do examine pay by role and gender to ensure people are paid the same regardless of gender. And I am fortunate to have a role as a senior executive to be able to set a tone and effect policies to ensure we have equal pay for equal roles, that regardless of gender your career path is based on the merits of your contributions. Making this real requires both awareness and action.

SHERYL SANDBERG, ANNE-MARIE SLAUGHTER, AND THE MISTAKES I’VE MADE

When my wife and I met we both had career-track jobs. Me in technology marketing, and she in textbook editing. Within two years of getting married, we had the first of our four children (we would have four children in five years), and without either of us really thinking through the implications, my wife decided to quit her job and become a full-time mother — trading a professional job for a 100+ hour per week job with no pay while also squeezing in 5-10 hours a week of freelance editing.

It’s not so much that we talked much about it, it’s just it was the easier, more obvious choice. I made a lot more money than she could. It just made sense. It was expected. And no one at my office ever asked me if I was coming back to work after the births of any of our children. But that question gets asked of pretty much every pregnant woman. It’s this unspoken societal set of norms that make it easy to not question assumptions. To not think through the alternatives, and the consequences. That’s what we did.

It wasn’t until almost fifteen years later, when during the Great Recession my wife needed to go back to a full-time job, that we realized how much a price that decision had cost her. She was able to resume her editing career — right where she had left it. Meanwhile, I had continued to progress far ahead in mine, further exacerbating the gap between our careers and earning potential. And the fifteen years were spent. She couldn’t get those back.

Some years later, reading Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg was a revelation to me. Here was a woman brave enough to share her personal journey through this landscape, to call out just how hard it is for women to travel the same path men do. Social pressure, income inequality.

I read Lean In with equal measures of excitement and shame. How could I have been an enabler to the outcome of my wife’s career path? How could I have not done more to think through the implications, to be a better partner? We both made decisions informed by culture, momentum and inertia. Easy at the time, costly in hindsight.

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And when Anne-Marie Slaughter penned “Women Can’t Have It All,” it felt like I’d read something written by a soul looking over my shoulder during those decision moments — someone looking over both my wife and my shoulders.

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As a husband, I let my wife and our family down by not taking a more active role in questioning assumptions, understanding the need to think about consequences of choices — whether intentional or choices made by a lack of an act.

DREAMFORCE EQUALITY SUMMIT

This past October I attended the huge Salesforce.com conference, Dreamforce, and witnessed a session in the Women and Equality Leadership Summit. It was phenomenal Leyla Seka moderated the session where Anne-Marie Slaughter and Sarah Kate Ellis (CEO of GLAAD) spent more than an hour discussing the challenges (and opportunities) women have pursuing leadership roles in business and society. Frank, honest conversation. I found it illuminating, inspiring, and urgent.

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But in a room of about 1,000 people, I was one of maybe 100 men. That was profoundly disappointing and frustrating. Women already know about the challenges they face. While it surely was valuable for them to be there together, where were the men? Men need to be actively engaged in this conversation. A disproportionate number of them in the very positions that can effect change, and they’re not even participating in the conversations.

I HAVE THREE SONS

My wife and I have four children: three sons and a daughter. I am so tired of hearing men called out for gender discrimination verbalizing platitudes of support for women and bringing out the “well of course I’m opposed to discrimination, I have a wife and daughter(s).”

That so, so disgustingly misses the point. You should be vigilant because you have sons. The behavior and values you live inform your sons about what equality looks like and feels like, because inequality affects them, not just your daughter(s) and your wife.

WHY I AM A FEMINIST

I am a feminist because I want to create an environment where women and men get judged equally on their merits, and I want my sons to be fully engaged in creating that world. Where men and women have their ideas heard. Where men and women get paid equally for the same roles.

I am a feminist because I don’t ever want another woman to have her idea appropriated.

I am a feminist because I don’t want to “true-up” salaries for the rest of my professional life. I am a feminist because I want women to have the same opportunities as men.

I am a feminist so that society encourages and makes it possible for men, and women, to be equal care givers. So that either men and women get asked “are you going to stay home after the birth of your child?” or better, the questions stops getting asked, of anyone.

I am a feminist because I want my sons to be active and engaged in creating the environment and “normal” I strive for. A ‘normal” where men and women have their ideas heard.

And I am a feminist because I want my daughter and my sons to see how men can be a part of the change, become leaders, and be blind to gender in the decisions they make and the actions they take, as they live their lives.

Preparation for an upcoming blog post

November 27, 2016

I’ve been working on a post about feminism and the different paths women face in careers and society that men don’t face. Here are a few resources that have both informed my journey and point of view, and have helped me understand the landscape better:

Salesforce.com Dreamforce Equality Summits – Salesforce.com is a company that walks its talk about values and equality. When ___ raised the issue of gender equality in pay to CEO Marc Beniof, his reaction was to dig into the data. And they found they had a problem, and spent $3M “true-ing up” salaries. Their focus on equality at Dreamforce is equal parts inspiration and pragmatic.

Dreamforce 2016

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Dreamforce 2015

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Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In – this book polarized and galvanized the professional world. Perhaps not the first book to highlight the different ways women are treated in society and their careers, but an unapologetic outline of the landscape.

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Anne Marie Slaughter’s Women Can’t Have It All – the most read article on TheAtlantic.com, ever, this was a counterpunch to Lean In and laid bare how women face different pressure to succeed in their careers while also being the primary caregiver to their children. Pressure men do not face.

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Bitch Media – This is a thoughtful feminist publishing group that takes complex issues and orchestrates measured discussion and evaluation of the factors creating inequality for women, and the means to address them. The tone is serious and unflinching.

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Bitch Media’s Popaganda podcast – And for folks who like to hear their discourse about feminist topics,  Popaganda provides interviews and discussions of a wide range of feminist topics. And the range will present the listener with subjects that may be on the edge or even outside their comfort zone, but that’s good.

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The high cost of winning

November 17, 2016

It’s been a little over a week since Donald Trump won the US presidential election, and this is playing out as expected. Republicans are the “winners” and Democrats are the “losers.” The obsession with winning at all costs – and the Republicans paid quite a price for this win – is what has polarized our nation, and gridlocked our government.

But with Trump it was different. Let’s not look at his policies – politics is about differing policies, and democracy is supporting the President whether you agree with his/her policies.

This election was different. The words Trump used during his campaign were breathtaking, Shocking. His words revealed him to be a racist. They revealed him to be sexist. They revealed him to mock the disabled. They revealed him to dishonor our servicemen.

And throughout the campaign, the keen observers were reminding us “Trump is not the issue, it’s that so many people support him – that’s the real issue.”

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True story. As shocking as it is to confront a country led by a racist, sexist bully, it’s even more horrifying to contemplate that people chose that kind of a leader.

So don’t fear Trump. Fear his supporters.

And “his supporters” are people in your community.

The people you shop with, you go to school events with, that you socialize with. For them racism and sexism were not deal breakers. That’s the alarming part of this election.

And there is real fear. In the days after the election our high school age son came home from school sharing with us that his friends and their families are worried about their safety and security. These are naturalized American citizen families of Vietnamese origin, Sri Lankan origin, Mexican origin, middle eastern origin. They are living in fear today.

What they fear is what might happen to them in their community because of the color of their skin, their gender, or their religious beliefs. They certainly don’t fear that Trump will personally discriminate against them, or threaten their safety or well being. It’s that the people they live in this community might. The people who at some point decided that racism and sexism were not deal breakers.

I live in a community with a national reputation for supporting disabled students. The university campus here has sent numerous disabled athletes to the Special Olympics. How should they feel in their community when they see the leader their community members vote for is someone who openly mocks the disabled?

I don’t believe that the people in our communities that supported Trump believe they’re racists or sexists. But the moment of choosing Trump is the moment of truth.

I honestly struggle to imagine an explanation from parent to a daughter explaining why they voted for Trump yet somehow are not in some way endorsing sexism. Would it go like this?: “I’ve decided to vote for Trump, but even though he has repeatedly demeaned women and admitted to groping them, you should feel safe in a society with him as a leader.” Really? How safe can you feel as a woman today, with the Commander-in-Chief setting a tone of blatant sexism?

When you talk to really effective leaders they will tell you the most significant aspect of leadership is setting the tone of the organization. Setting the tone of what your expectations and standards are. Setting the tone for how work will get done, how decisions will get made, how people will treat each other.

A tone is being set that racism and sexism are ok. That it’s ok to make fun of the disabled. That it’s ok to pass judgment on the men and women in the military because of their race, creed, or national origin.

Put another way, if someone on one of my teams said what Trump has said about women, I would have fired him. And I wouldn’t have deliberated whether or not his ideas and plans about his role in the business had merit. Because none of that would have mattered. I don’t tolerate discrimination on my teams. Zero.

If someone said what he said in a job interview, I wouldn’t has thought “maybe he has better ideas than another candidate?” or “I dislike the other candidates more than this one” – that’s the last I would have seen of them.

Generally speaking, I can’t imagine an ethical corporation that would hire someone who demonstrated the behavior Trump did during the election cycle – regardless of how well they might do the job.

You can like Trump for his policies, but unless you’ve rejected his racist, sexist, mocking of the disabled, dishonoring of our military men and women – then you are enabling racism, you are enabling sexism, you are enabling the diminishing of the disabled and military. Because you can’t say “I support the disabled” and support someone who does this:

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So where does that leave us? I’m not sure. What do we do when we live in communities made up of people who through their vote for Trump seemed to say “Racism, sexism, and other forms of discrimination were not deal breakers.”

It seems to me the obligation for reconciliation lies with them. The responsibility for explaining to the people they see in their community how they could support a candidate like Trump and yet be intolerant of racism, sexism, and other forms of discrimination. They bear the responsibility of safeguarding the members of their community who are of different races, creeds, and colors. And the rest of the community will need to hold them accountable for their actions.

Greg Popovich couldn’t have framed this any better. It’s not about politics. It’s about behavior and our communities.

A life of generosity lived with an open heart. I will miss you, Ken Myszkewicz.

October 31, 2016

A friend of mine was murdered six days ago. He was 43 years old and left behind a wonderful wife and son. And amidst the heartbreak and the tears, my friend left life as he lived it – focusing all of us who knew him on the capacity each of us has to make life better.
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We first came to live in our town in 2001 – my wife’s grandmother was nearly 90 years old, and we decided to move close to her so if she passed away we wouldn’t wish we had been with her – we would have actually been with her. This was prescient, as she did pass away six months after our fateful decision to be with her.
I’ve always been a big fan of cycling, and I brought my bike with me when we moved – an “exotic” Pinarello I bought with part of my signing bonus when I got out of business school in 1990. One of the first things I did once we got settled in our new home was to go out for a bike ride – Southeastern Wisconsin is an awesome place to ride a bike – miles and miles of country roads and beautiful scenic farmland.

So there I was, I’d just finished one of my first rides and I went to a convenience store in town to get something to drink. I was sitting on my bike and noticed a guy across the street walking by, see me, do a double-take, and then make a beeline for me. He introduced himself, and then proceeded to ask about the bike and offered a load of suggestions about routes as well as let me know there were Tuesday/Thursday “no drop” rides leaving from the Trek factory in town. Before I knew it we’d exchanged contact info. My wife remembers me coming back from that chance meeting excited to have had such a warm welcome to the cycling community.

That guy was Ken Myszkewicz.

Those “no drop” rides in hindsight are where Ken’s character were revealed, time and again. I’m a bike nut, but I’m not a cycling athlete. I love riding bikes, and I did show up on more than a few of these rides. The group would head out for two hours of riding, and the pace would pick up along the way. I would generally be at the back of the group, my eyes focused on the hub of the rider in front of me. As the pace increased and as I got tired, tunnel vision would develop, and about all I could see was that hub.

Cycling is a surprisingly mental sport. When you’re tired, and all you can see is that hub, staying “on the wheel” of that person in front of you becomes your mental obsession. It’s your lifeline to the group. Fall back too far and you won’t be able to speed up enough to get back on the wheel, and you’ll be riding by yourself.

There’s even a term for this – “yo-yo-ing” off the back of the pack. Fall behind, work your way back up. Fall behind again, work your way back up again.

And “no drop” rides are where the pack keeps its speed to the point where no one falls off the back. It’s humane to the less capable, justifiably annoying to the better cyclists.

On my first group ride there I was, 20 miles in, and at the back. Yo-yo-ing. And as hard as I tried, I was starting to fall back. With my tunnel vision I didn’t notice a rider look back, and then slow down and move up behind me. Moments later I felt a firm hand on my lower back, and it pushed me forward. Right up behind the wheel of the rider at the back.

That was Ken. No words. Just help. And while he had a legendary reputation for being able to set a pace for a ride that would leave the entire group scattered and exhausted, he chose to take his abilities, and his heart, and direct it to helping others stay in the group. It was a choice.

Ken was a legendarily competitive cyclist, who founded more than a few cycling teams and who raced and won just about every kind of cycling race that exists: road, cyclocross, endurance, mountain biking. He worked at Trek – how much better does a job get if you’re a cyclist?

When he found out I was nuts about cycling and that Greg Lemond is a hero of mine, Ken made sure to get Greg to sign a photo when he stopped by the Trek factory.

At the service I met people he made better by helping them keep up. The people he made better by setting a pace on competitive rides that caused them to dig deeper for strength and mental toughness than they could have on their own. He made people better by simply showing up, at races, at rides, at school events. When I spoke with others who knew Ken this generosity of spirit is what each and every person I spoke with remarked on.

Ken was both a man of few words, and amazingly skilled at conversation. He could remain silent in a group, and offer one-word answers and what one might describe as even grunts if he thought the subject was mundane or frivolous. Yet he could also engage you in a conversation for hours if the topic was worthy and you were game.

When we first moved to our town, for about five years we would host a holiday party. At the first year the party ended at about 9, and everyone left, except Ken. He grabbed a beer and continued talking for the next two hours. It was a good, thoughtful conversation. If it had been anyone else we would have thought “why won’t this guy leave” – but this is where Ken was at his best. We took it as a compliment, that this was Ken’s way of letting us know he was comfortable and felt welcome. With the crowd gone, it was just him and you. For the next few years we would plan these parties knowing there would be the time we told guests the party would end, and then there would be the time when Ken would leave. We’d plan for at least an hour. This paid dividends. We got to know Ken’s wife, Kim really well, and this cemented the friendship our children had with their son, Tyler.

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Of the hundreds of photos we saw yesterday, every single one had Ken, his wife Kim, and their son Tyley with big, beaming smiles. Every one.

These weren’t forced. They were genuine reflections of the hearts that produced them.

The searing loss for me is that it’s precisely too late to let Ken know how much I valued who he was. And yesterday at the service I saw hundreds of people who Ken had made a difference in their lives, and they couldn’t let Ken know either. Because making a difference in someone’s life most often is done in a way that neither party notices at the time. Ken changed lives because of who he was on a daily basis and he never helped people to be noticed. There were no heroics involved.

And my life was changed by Ken in ways I only see and appreciate through the pain of his loss and a broken heart.

At Ken’s service yesterday the most telling, awe inspiring moment happened when another cyclist stood up and asked “How many of you have had Ken show up and push you back up to the group?”

And more than 100 hands went up.

Ken was an awesomely accomplished cyclist, won more than his share of races. He was a fiercely competitive person. But the difference he made with his life was not what he won, but the choices he made to help. 1000s of times. The choices he made to live his life.

The very wise and kind pastor who oversaw the service yesterday closed it reminding us that the daily generosity Ken practiced is what we should focus on in our own lives. How we can  do more, every day.

For me, I will look more generously to find those who are”yo-yo-ing” in life and be that person who shows up with a firm hand, to help push them forward.

Ken is gone now. But he left us all an example about how to live a life.

I’m done with Uber – The moral cost is too high

November 29, 2014

I was one one of Uber’s best fans – I must have recruited a dozen friends and colleagues to the service, because it fundamentally is just so much better than taxis or car services. Wonderfully inspired idea, and at the street level, brilliantly executed. I loved it.

And I use the past tense because I did love it. But not anymore. The trickle of moral lapses by Uber’s CEO, Travis Kalanick, have become a roaring torrent. Uber has an ethics problem, but most importantly it has an ethical leadership problem.

Peter Thiel summed it up succinctly: “Uber is the most ethically challenged company in Silicon Valley.”

Which is why the details of the plan to smear journalists who create unflattering views of the service pushed me to the point of being all done with the service.  So, on November 25 I sent my request to Uber to cancel my account, as “the moral cost to me of doing business with your firm is more than I can afford, and I have happily created my first accounts at Lyft and Curb.”

And in efficient Uber fashion, I received this confirmation of my account cancellation, which is sad. The service and drivers are great. But that’s not enough today. You have to believe in and trust the people at the top. And I can do neither with Uber the way it is being run right now. Travis – until you show some leadership and I won’t be back.Uber Cancellation

Personal Heroes

October 21, 2013

I have personal heroes – folks who have lived their lives in ways that give me inspiration and a vocabulary to name my own ambitions. People who are unafraid to say what they believe, regardless of what it will cost them.

David Walsh is one of my personal heroes

Few people outside of professional cycling know who this man is, but he’s the journalist who first suspected Lance Armstrong of cheating, and spent 13 years doing the difficult work of uncovering the evidence and speaking the truth. And he became the target of all Armstrong could throw at him.

This Sunday Times article says it all:

When Lance Armstrong won his first Tour de France in 1999, David Walsh wrote in The Sunday Times that he watched the race in sadness. Armstrong’s astonishing exploits, just three years after his successful battle with cancer, did not make sense to him. Rather than joining the unquestioning journalists who lauded the American’s achievements, Walsh called for an inquiry into the Tour de France in July 1999,….”

CTWThink about the context. In 1999 – the first year of Armstrong’s comeback – Walsh calls this out. And for the next 13 years  pretty much everyone else tells him he’s wrong. It costs him his job, professional and personal relationships. How lonely it must have been for him.

I’m not going to re-hash the whole Armstrong crime, but if you want to dig in, look here, and here, and here for a start. David’s books are “Seven Deadly Sins” and “From Lance to Landis”.

I am a huge cycling fan, and my family and I spent five  vacations in the French Alps to watch the race in person. In 2006 through a journalist friend, we struck up a dialogue with David to encourage him to write what became “From Lance to Landis” – his first english language book that laid out the evidence Armstrong was cheating.

David flew to France and spent the weekend with us. I was awestruck at the simplicity of his motivation: to expose a lie. It wasn’t personal, it was about values. This was a man of principle outraged at the crime he clearly saw but was incredibly inconvenient and unpopular to expose.

Over dinner long into the night, and then again at breakfast the next morning, the talk centered on the crime that was happening in plain sight. Incredibly we were sitting with him at that dinner when his phone rang – another journalist  calling him with the news that Floyd Landis had tested positive at the just completed Tour de France. Talk about being at ground-zero at a pivotal moment.

Looking back I can’t believe that weekend actually happened. What brought us together? I would like to think a sense of shared values.

This is a man whose humility, values, and sense of purpose we can all learn from. A true hero. I’ve got a few other people who serve this kind of inspiration, I’ll write about them later. For now, thank you, David.

The Brand Value of “No”

March 5, 2012

One of the most valuable lessons I learned as a venture capitalist, and one that my partners and I took super seriously, was how our personal brands and firm’s brand would be built on how we said “no.”

Being in the VC business is being in the business of saying “no.”  We looked at 300-400 deals a year and funded two or three. Every week I had to say “no” to lots and lots of people. Heck, Marc Andreessen said “no” 1,500 times last year at his firm.

It’s hard to tell someone you’re not going to provide the funding to get their company started when the person you’re speaking with likely has put months or years of their lives into the business they’re pitching to you. The easy way out is to avoid it. And a lot of the time that’s what happens.

A surprising minority of VCs just won’t ever get back to the entrepreneur. Others will send a short, frequently cryptic “your business does not fit with our criteria” response. Neither of these is helpful or particularly honest because VCs pass on deals for very specific reasons that they discuss with their partners in Monday meetings.

So my partners and I decided when we said “no” we would do so in a way that passed along the reasons why – that way the entrepreneur would be able to make some use of our collective thinking. If I felt the business model was flawed, the team was weak, or product strategy too broad – then sharing that information might help the entrepreneur make adjustments. But at least I would be straight-up.

Many of these businesses were fundable – just not by us (that’s where the “did not fit our criteria” was true), so I strove to pass along information that might help the entrepreneur have a better shot at the next firm they pitched.

Not only is it hard to be this direct with someone, it also takes a lot more time than going silent or sending a curt generic note. The nature of leading a startup means being tenacious and persistent. So frequently I’d spend an hour or more while the CEO would try and talk me out of my decision, rebut my argument, and bring more data to the discussion.

This is super relevant regardless of what business you’re in. You will say “no” far more often than you will say “yes”, and becoming comfortable and constructively effective at saying “no” is a way for you to build value in your personal brand as well as your company’s. Whether it’s turning down a proposal from a contractor or letting the many people applying for an open position know they’re not going to make the cut, you can distinguish yourself mightily in how you convey your decision.

You have the opportunity to share your personal values – your brand – to the many people you say “no” to and who knows what opportunity that might create down the road. And in an age where personal brands are becoming increasingly essential to your company and your career, learning how to effectively and constructively say “no” is critical.

So, the next time you’ve got five or ten or fifteen candidates for an open position, invest in your personal brand by telling the folks that didn’t get the job why you chose someone else. You’ll be doing each of them a favor, and building a brand for yourself that you’ll be proud to associated with.

A spontaneous reaction

September 23, 2009

I’m still struggling to get back into a writing routine after my John Muir Trail adventure, there’s a lot going on in my life and job, and I’m still a bit consumed with the deeper, reflective topics I’d spent all those miles contemplating on my trip. 

And then, without a lot of forethought or anticipation, a topic (re)surfaced.

Towards the end of the last school year, there was an incident of racism at my daughter’s high school, which revealed the complexity and range of our community’s response.  I wrote about this at the time it happened, how in general many opportunities were missed to both care for those involved, as well as make the most of learning from it. 

And not one to lob criticism from the sidelines, I agreed to join a taskforce setup to better understand our community’s ability to foster diversity, and what we all can do differently to ensure racism or any other form of discrimination has a short life, if any, here.  We had a meeting on September 9, and while there is still more motion than progress, the trend-line is a good one, and we’re converging on a set of recommendations that are actionable and durable.

A lot of what we’ve discussed is how to show people that in the moment there are choices, and how to choose to speak out, to stand up. 

So when I came across an article in the Seattle Times last Thursday morning about a 70 year-old Armenian man, Henry Gasparian, it found my mind prepared and inqusitive.  He was arrested for his spontaneous “personal and emotional” reaction to seeing posters of Barack Obama with a Hitler mustache.  Gasparian lived through the occupation of his country by the Nazis.

He was on his way to the Edmonds Farmers Market, and when he saw these posters, he tried to grab them out of the hands of the Lyndon Larouche supporters who were handing them out.  To make this sad, long story a bit shorter, he was charged with two counts of fourth degree assault.  You can and should read the article.

The courage of this man and the raw logic of his outrage are inspiring.  The only action remotely criminal was not the offensive poster (first amendment right) nor Gasparian’s reaction (common sense), but the need to silence him, to criminalize his behavior. 

It seems cowardly on the part of the Larouche supporters to show up with this offensive poster, taking full advantage of the protection of the constitution, and then not be willing to tolerate the (expected) reactions.  To claim Gasparian reacted “without provocation” seems absurdly ironic.

While the Larouche supporters could perhaps feel justified that Gasparian’s physical actions were threatening, I think the burden is on them to anticipate the reactions they could provoke.  If you yell “Fire” in a movie theater, you shouldn’t be able to charge the crowd that tramples you on their way out the door with assault.

So last Thursday afternoon those thoughts were in the back of my mind as I was walking down the Seattle waterfront with a friend, and ten feet in front of me was a woman holding a large poster of Barak Obama, with the Hitler mustache.  I was in mid-conversation when I looked up at her, our eyes met, and she said “What do you think?,” and without breaking stride I said “I think that poster’s offensive, and you should be ashamed of yourself.”  I said it calmly, but strongly.

The woman seemed taken aback, said nothing in response, and shifted her gaze elsewhere.  And I kept walking, tried to resume the conversation, but had to explain that my reaction was completely spontaneous. 

I am not the kind of person who gets in public confrontations, but that felt so comfortable, so right, calling this out, in the moment.  In my own little way.

So I’m with Henry Gasparian, and the value of spontaneous reactions. 

A BDP from an unlikely “industry”

July 29, 2009

My first job out of business school was with a management consulting firm who focused on growth strategies for their clients.  The four founders of the firm were former partners at Bain, and they brought to our firm the concept of “best demonstrated practices” which we referred to by the acronym “BDP.”

Bain defines a BDP as something that “generates the most value at the least cost.”  At our firm it referred to an example something done so well you could you use it as a model to learn from, where you could discern the essence of success from and apply it more broadly.  This could be a business process or a business model, communications or management style.  It’s a nice construct to help you identify patterns that could be relevant to you or your business.

Of course BDPs also have limitations.  Without the corresponding insight about the context of why an example works so well, about all you’ll be able to do is copy the motions of the example, but not the essence of its effectiveness.   To make a BDP really work you’ve got to simultaneously abstract away the context while also deeply understanding it.

I’ve seen some of the startups I’ve worked with over the years really get this wrong, whose teams will energetically seek out the best performing companies in some discipline (say, acquiring new users) and just copy what was done, without understanding whether or not those same methods really make sense or apply to their business, with their users. 

But every so often you come across an example of simplicity and insight, efficiency of communication, where the problem has been thought through so completely you just wish you could take it, copy it, and paste it into whatever business you’re running.

I came across one of these earlier in the week.  You know from my last post that I’m hiking the John Muir Trail next week, which will take about three weeks.  I won’t be able to carry all my food for that length of time and will need to resupply twice along the way.  This works pretty simply, you mail a package of supplies to one of two “resupply” points, and they hold it for you until you arrive.  You restock your backpack, give them your trash, and off you go again.

But it’s more complicated than that.  I am depending on that food being there when I get there, If it’s not there when I get there, I’m screwed – I’ll be close to being out of food and will still have more than a week of hiking to go to the next resupply.  So getting this right matters a lot.

The first resupply point is like a hotel in the mountains, about a six mile roundtrip detour from the trail.  The second resupply point, The Muir Trail Ranch, is much more convenient, literally on the trail.  The quality of thinking that went into the instructions about how to get your package to them, and how to ensure a successful resupply, is simply magnificent.  The fact that you ship your food to them in a five gallon plastic bucket makes this all the more whimsical.

It’s not just the explanation of the steps and logistics, it’s the tone of the communication.  Clear, simple, welcoming, conveying a desire to make you successful, to make the whole process successful, conveying a deep understanding of the context of their service. 

Their instructions reads like an FAQ, but it’s not a laundry list of questions, it’s a very thoughtful and insightful delineation of your needs and their ability to meet them.  They’ve addressed the “lifecycle” of a resupply – the range of needs you will have (email access, recharging devices, disposing of your trash) when you’ve come to get more food. 

To me the high point is at the bottom of the page, where they encourage you to pre-register your delivery, and will even e-mail you pre-printed shipping labels.  The example label sheet is stunning in its efficiency – I don’t know about you, but I’ve certainly never mailed a bucket before, and doing so is not obvious.

This experience certainly reduced some anxiety about my resupply, but made me appreciate how wonderful it is to be on the receiving end of high quality thinking and customer awareness.  Where insight about the context is abundant.