How A Determined Adoptee Used Google Earth To Find His Hometown and His Family

I love this Vanity Fair story about an adoptee who used Google Earth to find his childhood home, and eventually his mother, twenty years after hopping on the wrong train in a busy Indian train station. For anyone that has ever felt a longing to find and understand where they came from, this is a heart-warming story.

How Ron Johnson Could Have Avoided Catastrophe by Listening to JCPenney’s People

The story of the rapid decline of JCPenney under Ron Johnson’s leadership is one of the most shocking business stories of recent years. Bringing in the genius behind Apple’s retail stores seemed like a no-brainer when he first arrived at JCPenney. He came in with a vision and exciting new ideas about how to turn around the struggling retailer. What I’m not sure that he came in with, was a willingness to listen to the smart people around him that had spent their careers at JCPenney.

There seems to be a bias that leaders bring to turn-around jobs like JCPenney, best summarized as the “Outsiders Know Better” bias. It’s understandable why it happens. JCPenney had been struggling for a long time and something needed to change. It’s easy for a new CEO to assume that the people who were working there were not world-class, so the new CEO brings in a lot of people to surround him that he can trust. He’s worked with them before, they share the same experience, and have the same vision. And that’s exactly what Mr. Johnson did at JCPenney.

The problem is, for as much as JCPenney could learn from Mr. Johnson’s and his experience at Apple, he could have learned just as much about the realities of discount retailing from the people who had spent their careers in JCPenney. Perhaps paying more attention to those realities  would have prevented the rapid decline that the company has experienced. I’m certain that there were widespread concerns within JCPenney about how the end of coupons, a staple of their business,  would cause a dramatic drop in traffic. But it seems like those kinds of concerns, among others, were never dealt with. I think that highlights a key challenge that new leaders face – understanding the difference between 1) managing the risk that they have picked the right strategy, and 2) managing the risk that the organization will successfully execute it. What many leaders don’t realize is that the best way to manage both risks is by listening to the people in the organization they lead and enrolling them in the strategy conversation.

I often use Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs as a reference when talking to leaders about making change happen. All too often, resistance from the organization is seen as a case of people being stuck in their ways and a sign that some people need to be shown the door. Tough questions about the strategy don’t get asked, and possible pitfalls don’t get identified. People keep their heads down and keep their jobs safe. That attitude can create a massive conflict for people. Do I open my mouth and disagree with the strategy? Or do I stay quiet and go home every night worrying about when things are eventually going to fall apart? In either case, I’m operating at a very low level of the hierarchy of needs and I’m probably not very productive.

I believe that ultimately, most people want to believe in the direction their company is headed and do their best to help make it a success. And to do so, they need to be given the opportunity to understand rather than being asked to simply follow.  By allowing their teams to ask questions, leaders can understand what is worrying their people about achieving this new future and learn from it themselves. Not only can a leader gain commitment through this course, but they might unearth some unseen land mines in their strategy in the process which they can work together to solve.

The reason that this back-and-forth doesn’t happen is that many leaders don’t have a good understanding of how to design such a two-way conversation in a positive, constructive way. They are concerned that it will open up more issues than it will resolve. Many worry that this would be seen a sign of weakness instead of a sign of leadership, but it certainly doesn’t need to be when handled correctly.

Would following this kind of approach have resulted in a very-different  JCPenney today? Would a more creative and successful strategy been discovered by taking the best of Apple and the best of JCPenney rather than blowing up the business model altogether? While we will never know for sure, it would have provided a forum for important conversations and possibly identified conflicts between the new strategy and the old JCPenney that needed to be resolved in order to be successful. And as we know real innovation most often happens in resolving conflicts, not by simply applying best-practices learned from another company, even one as successful as Apple.

What have been your experiences with living through changes in company strategy?

Why I Keep Sharing “The First Follower” As A Leadership Lesson

Over the years, I’ve probably passed this video on to well over a hundred people. It’s a short, simple lesson in leadership and, just as importantly, follwership. The core lesson is that the most important person to a movement is the first follower. That first follower transforms the lone nut into a leader.

But what strikes me the most about this video is the lesson that the leader needs to embrace that first follower as an equal, inviting them into the movement and making it easy for them to invite others. The leader needs to make it all about the movement and not himself.

I wonder if Derek Sivers realized that he was following his own advice by making an easy to share, three-minute video. Or if he was unconsciously practicing what he preached?

In any case, I invite you to become part of the movement and share this with others.

The 2013 CrossFit Open Is In The Books (and why I’ll be back next year)

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For those of you who don’t know, I’ve been part of CrossFit for the last year. It’s not only been a great way for me to get into better shape than I’ve been in at least a decade, its also provided a fun opportunity to meet new people not only here in Miami Beach, but also in Seattle and other places I’ve visited around the country.

One of the things that makes CrossFit unique is the competitive nature of the sport. Whether competing against friends, ourselves, or the steady march of time, the idea of getting better everyday is ingrained into the sport. Nowhere has that been more apparent than in the CrossFit Games Open. The Open is a series of five workouts that competitors compete over the course of five weeks, with the top scorers moving on to a regional competition. For the vast majority of people, there are no dreams of medals, the only physical trophies are bizarrely-mangled-hands-that-most-closely-resemble-what-you’d-see-at-a-crime-scene-and-clearly-show-that-someone-needs to-work-on-his-pull-up-technique. Instead we’re there to prove that we can and to see if we have improved since last year’s competition.

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And I think that last point is the really important one. Its so easy to fall into the way of thinking that getting older means that we start slowing down, getting weaker, accepting that we’re not going to be as fast or as strong as we used to. While that will probably be the case for Usain Bolt, its not necessarily the case for the rest of us. And that’s why I have so much respect for the people that I see at the gym everyday.  I might not know everyone’s name and we might not hang out on the weekends, but I have a special respect for how hard they push themselves in order to improve, week after week and year after year.

Two of my good friends, Gabriel Baldinucci at Singularity Univeristy and Nigel Smith at AARP, often talks about the coming future where the average life expectancy will get longer and longer as medical science and technology continue to improve. What will happen when our average lifespan is 100? What will that mean for how we think about concepts like retirement and old-age?  Will we start to outlive our bodies’ usefulness and need to rely on prosthetics to get around?

Personally speaking, I made a commitment to fight that decline and that’s why I often spend my evenings doing pull-ups, push-ups, squats and box jumps until I can’t do any more. And that’s why I’ll be back again next year, pushing myself harder, and hoping that with the work I’ll put in over the course of the next 12 months I’ll be in the top half of competitors in 2014. This year I’ll probably end up around the 40th percentile of competitors (the snatches killed me). And while I’m not really competing against anyone else, I know that personally speaking there’s no way I can be happy about being in the 40th percentile of anything for very long. None of us should. Not when we can start getting better, everyday.

And The Winner Of The “Hershberger Award” Is…

This is a great article about how a group of students at William and Marry created a fake All-American team back in 1972, just to honor their schools best player. I have to wonder if it could ever happen again in our advanced age of technology and media…or if it would be even easier to do today. In any case, kudos to these guys for having the creativity and perseverance it took to pull this off and keep up the ruse for 40 years!

Why iPhone Users Should Love Samsung Today

First of all, let’s just acknowledge that I have an iPhone. I’ve had one ever since the iPhone 3G (I’m not quite such an early adopter as to have bought the original 2G version). And, for the most part, I love the iPhone. Over the scant few years that it has been in existence, it’s truly changed how the world communicates and shares information. But let’s face it…the last few years have been a little blah as far as iPhone advances go. The headlines have been about the Retina display (iPhone 4), Siri and her associated challenges (iPhone 4S) and the larger 4″ screen (iPhone 5). Sure there have been advances under the hood, but I’ve been wanting something a little more…let’s just say sexy.

And that’s why last night’s announcement about the new Samsung Galaxy s4 was so exciting to watch. Eye tracking technology? AirWave gesture-based interface? A TV control app that uses an Infrared blaster? That’s a lot of buzz to get excited about. And it marks the first time that I’ve actually looked forward to the announcement of a smartphone other than an iPhone. And to me, that means that for the first time since the iPhone was introduced, the ball is truly in Apple’s court to respond. Rumors certainly abound about the next version of the iPhone. Could there be a fingerprint scanner? An even larger screen? I’m sure the iPhone rumor mill will kick into overdrive following Samsung’s announcement, and that is precisely why I believe every iPhone user should be thanking Samsung tonight.

Let’s face it, to remain innovative and cutting edge, we often need a rival to compete with. Coke needs Pepsi. Boeing needs Airbus. Nike needed Adidas (for many years the Nike vision statement was “Crush Adidas”). And, in the world of smartphones, Apple needs Samsung.

Samsung has put a huge target on Apple’s back. The launch of the new Galaxy s4 didn’t take place in Seoul, it took place in New York City at Radio City Music Hall. Samsung wants to beat Apple in the US, one of the few smartphone markets Apple still controls. Samsung might as well have sent a horse’s head to 1 Infinite Loop in Cupertino. Now all eyes will be on Apple, ramping up the excitement for the next iPhone over the summer.

What will make this looming battle even more exciting is that the two companies have seemingly different strategies they are following. Samsung has long competed on hardware, and now has added a lot of “wow” software features. Apple has competed on simplicity of use and an integrated experience. There’s no way to know which will company will ultimately prevail, but I do know that the competition will be thrilling to watch and will likely lead to a slew of new innovations that we can’t begin to imagine today.

While eating lunch together earlier in the week, a friend perfectly summed up the predicament that Apple finds itself in today. Apple faces a lagging stock price and a market where the still very sophisticated iPhone 4 is being offered free to new subscribers in the US and eating into iPhone 5 sales. I asked somewhat rhetorically, “What went wrong for Apple?”

“They didn’t count on Samsung to be so strong,” he responded.

After today, perhaps the rest of us can count on Samsung to be strong enough to keep challenging Apple. And ultimately, we’ll all benefit. Even Apple.

NB: As much as Chipp loves innovation in the smartphone space, he secretly longs for a day when new phones are just introduced and not turned into made for TV spectaculars at Radio City Music Hall, the Moscone Center or anywhere in between. 

This post first appeared on Synecticsworld’s website.

Epigenetics – One More Reason to Blame Everything on Mom

This evening, I had a unique opportunity to meet one of the foremost experts in nutritional research, Professor Patrick Stover, Director of the Division of Nutritional Sciences at Cornell Univeristy. And I left with an entirely new perspective about the interplay between genetics and nutrition.

Epigenetics, or “Above genetics” is the study of how certain mechanisms can change the way that genes in the body express themselves, without altering the underlying DNA.

In normal-human language, that means that you could take identical genetic twins and, by providing different stimulus at critical times, influence their development so that they look nothing alike. Even though their genes remain the same.

For those of us that are not twins, it could mean that whatever mom ate while we were in the womb played a role in how our genes evolved into being us. Maybe we are smarter, better looking or more athletic than our genes alone would’ve dictated? If our moms were drinking Choline supplements, we certainly would be less stressed-out. And maybe we’d have a lower chance of Type 2 diabetes as an extra benefit! And, not only was that benefit passed onto us, but also to our children without ever altering the genome.

For more, check out the following from the always brilliant Neil deGrasse Tyson on Nova.

How to Stop Trying to Do Everyone Else’s Work (And Enjoy Doing Your Own)

Over the last few years of working at Synecticsworld, I’ve noticed different themes that have appeared in my work. Over the last couple of months, the theme of “clientship” has come out in a lot of conversations. For those of you that may be hearing this term for the first time in a Synectics context, clientship means putting the ownership for an outcome in the hands of the person who is ultimately responsible for delivering on it.

As straightforward as that concept may sound, many of us are susceptible to making a mistake or two when it comes to recognizing clientship. As I’ve personally experienced it in the past, and I’m hearing again lately, the easiest mistake to make is to take on ownership for someone else’s problems. This is especially problematic when the person who really owns the problem has not asked me to help in that way.

Here are a couple of straightforward examples that might resonate for some of you.

  1. Example #1: Trying to do more than I’m asked. Now, this might sound like heresy in a working environment where everyone is trying to do all they can to distinguish themselves, but few things I’ve witnessed will sap a bright, talented, young person’s energy than doing a ton of extra work for someone that didn’t want it in the first place. I’m sure many of us have been there…we see an opportunity to grow the business, spend a bunch of time doing research, developing a business case, and preparing a meticulous presentation only to find out that the person at the top really isn’t interested. “But the opportunity is so clear! I can’t understand why they would pass on it!” Well, neither can I, but as the old saying goes, you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink. (NB: Old sayings become old sayings for a reason.) Beating ourselves up because someone else doesn’t want to grow as fast as we do will only lead to us bruising ourselves.
  2. Example #2: Giving advice to someone that doesn’t want it. This is something that likely resonates with many of us. This is what happens when we’ve heard someone vent, or watched someone go through a difficult time in his or her life, and we jump in with a helpful, “Here is what I think you should do…” And we are surprised when that offer lands on the floor with an audible thud and perhaps a dirty look.

The thing that both of these situations have in common is that the person who really owned the problem, the “client” didn’t ask for any help from us. But because we are born as awesome problem-solving machines, we can’t help but try to solve any problem that comes our way. At best, we cause ourselves a lot of extra work and frustration. At worst, we jeopardize friendships or our jobs.

So, how can we avoid this pitfall (in three simple steps)?

  1. When you sense you might be entering a situation where you could be treading on someone else’s clientship, first ask, “Who really owns this problem?”
  2. If it’s not you, figure out what your role might be in helping them. Do you want to help them talk through, or facilitate, solving their issue? Do you want to offer ideas and act as a resource to them in that way?
  3. Once you have figured out the role you want to play, ask for permission. For example, “I think there might be some additional ways to grow the business beyond what has been identified. Can I look into that and provide you with some ideas?” Another example would be, “It sounds like you’ve been going through some tough times. Could I offer a few ideas that I thought about while I was listening to you?”

And, no matter what, if the person says no to your offer of assistance, my offer is to drop it then and there. The sooner we give ourselves permission to pay attention to the people in our lives that want our help and expertise rather than those who don’t, the happier and more productive we are going to be.

Special thanks to Harry Barrett for always reminding me of the importance of clientship.

Trust: The Real Casualty at Yahoo This Week

By now, we all know that Marissa Mayer, CEO of Yahoo, announced this week that she has banned employees from working at home. After the collective “Gasp!” that swept across a country full of remote workers had finally subsided, we were left to debate the wisdom of such a decision.

Clearly there are good arguments for such a restriction (it allows more face-to-face time with colleagues, encourages unscheduled “collisions” between co-workers that can lead to new ideas, and makes it easier to observe how much and how often people are working). And there are good arguments against such a restriction (lost time spent commuting, loss of flexibility, increased time and stress managing child-care in young families). But the truth is that the real issue that few are talking about is the impact on trust at Yahoo.

Trust is an amazingly important, and easily disrupted, ingredient for any stable, long-term relationship, either personal or professional. When trust exists, we can take risks and change the world together. When trust has been violated, fear and uncertainty rules our world, people watch their backs, and we start playing “cover-your-ass”. It’s not the kind of working environment that a struggling tech company needs.

This opens up a few questions that beg to be answered.

  • Does Marissa trust us? If I were at Yahoo, I’d have a hard time believing that Marissa trusts that we are all working as hard as we can in the best interests of the company. I’d feel like, for all the talk about Yahoo becoming more innovative as a result of this ban, this was really just a way for her to keep an eye on all of us. Are there really that many people working on a start-up on the side while on the Yahoo payroll? If so, doesn’t it say much more about the quality of managers that oversees these remote workers, which will not be solved by simply calling them back to the office?
  • Can I trust Marissa? I’d also wonder if I can trust Marissa to have my best interests at heart. As she is a very highly compensated CEO, I know she has a responsibility to the shareholders and board, but I wonder if she understands what it means for me to upend my life. Especially when the realities of her life are different from mine. Couldn’t there be another solution?
  • Even if she trusts us, does Marissa believe in us? Which is why my biggest frustration would be that Marissa does not appear to trust the rest of us Yahoos to come up with a better solution than this. For all the bluster buzzing around the Internet about the relative benefits and drawbacks of allowing people to work from home, it feels like the thinking is at the wrong level. Instead of debating about whether people should work at home or in an office, the real task Yahoo needs to be solving is, “Develop creative solutions to improve innovation and productivity and regain our standing as a tech industry leader.”

Sitting here in my (home) office I can come up with half a dozen ideas right off the top of my head to solve that challenge, and none of them have to do with where my desk is. Imagine what a team of Yahoo’s best and brightest could come up with! And if they had a team of Yahoo developers with them, they could immediately start prototyping some ideas that could eventually turn into money-making products. Because, if Yahoo is having a problem with productivity and innovation amongst its remote workforce, I’m pretty sure that many of the other 499 of the Fortune 500 are having the same problem. And if Yahoo is saying they can’t find a way to use technology so that I can be innovative and productive no matter where I’m sitting, its time to short their stock.

And if in the end, one of the recommendations is to have people start coming into the office everyday and stop working from home, at least the recommendation would be coming from a group of people who are working from home offices that look like mine, not one in a penthouse atop the Four Seasons San Francisco. And that would be a recommendation I could trust.

Is Miami’s Moment in the Start-up Sun Finally Arriving?

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This past Wednesday I had the opportunity to attend Start-up City: Miami sponsored by The Atlantic and The Atlantic Cities at Miami Beach’s New World Center. For me, this event came at just the right time. I’ve grown frustrated because I keep hearing the same lament from friends around our great city. Talented, driven individuals are faced with the choice of either leaving Miami to get the job they want, or making professional sacrifices in order to stay here in the city they love. Why do people in Miami feel like they have to make this choice? And could a burgeoning start-up scene in Miami provide another option?

After spending the day listening to a wide variety of speakers including celebrity CEO Tony Hsieh of Zappos, local success story Manny Medina, founder of Terremark, and Susan Amat, founder of Miami’s celebrated Launch Pad Tech, I left the conference hoping that a new technology age might be dawning here on the shores of Biscayne Bay. But it’s far too early to declare victory. Sure, having a conference like this take place in Miami feels like a massive endorsement of our city and the potential we have. And while that is great, Miami desperately needs a success story. We need a Zappos like Las Vegas, a Groupon like Chicago, a massive win that brings jobs, venture dollars and, perhaps most importantly, belief. And to the credit of the speakers, this was a theme that was repeated throughout the day.

It seems that Miami’s biggest problem in the start-up world is retaining growing companies. While there are many good ideas that get hatched here in Miami, once they reach the point where they need venture money they are moved to the Bay Area or New York by their investors. And I’m not sure how we reverse this trend without having an established funding source located here in Miami. I did hear the claim that we should expect at least one of the top-tier venture capital firms to  be opening an office here in Miami sometime in 2013, and I believe that would be truly groundbreaking. By serving Latin America out of our fair city, It would mark the beginning of a shift in regional focus from Sao Paulo to Miami, and entrepreneurs in South Florida as a whole would accrue many benefits in the process. The biggest would undoubtedly be the opportunity to grow their company while staying home in the Magic City.

The other request I heard from the panelists was for entrepreneurs in Miami to dream bigger. We have an enormous number of entrepreneurs, just relatively few who are working on world-changing ideas. In Palo Alto, every entrepreneur thinks they are going to change the world. Its hard-wired into the culture. To attract the focus of the venture funds, we need to start thinking about ideas that will do more than just make us our own bosses. We need to think about what the world needs, and how we can take advantage of our blessed location at the nexus of North America, South America and Europe to provide it.  And I think that plea needs to be made even more emphatically to local government. It escaped no one’s attention that there was not a single current elected office holder from Miami Beach, Miami-Dade or the City of Miami in attendance. I believe we need more than that from our local government.

In the wake of such an outpouring of entrepreneurial enthusiasm, we’re left to wonder what comes next. Will it be the arrival of a Sand Hill Road VC? Will it be a new public-private partnership to create Miami’s equivalent of Las Vegas’ Downtown Project? Ultimately, I don’t think there is any magic that is going to immediately change the course of Miami. It’s going to need to be done the old-fashioned way with people taking a chance on a big idea and busting their butts to make it happen.

Susan Amat made a commitment to the audience that I heard said in different ways by many speakers during the day, “Start a business and I will amplify you!” It’s time for Miamians to take up that challenge and give Susan, and others, the chance to make good on that promise.