Archive for October, 2009

We cannot afford NOT to spend the money

Wednesday, October 21st, 2009

There seems to be a thick fog of delusion obscuring rational conversation on the topic of government spending. Every day I hear another rant or read yet another article by one pundit or another about how we cannot afford to fight the battles that President Obama is waging. Just this morning, I read an article in the October 17 issue of The Economist (p.46) that serves as the perfect foil for my argument. The article paraphrased Democratic fears about the war in Afghanistan as a two-fold anxiety:

“One is that they might pour billions of dollars and hundreds of lives into Afghanistan, and still lose. The other is that a costly war could scuttle their domestic agenda. How will they pay for universal health care, for example, if they keep burning banknotes in the Afghan inferno?”

Indeed. This erstwhile intelligent and insightful publication, written and edited by astute men and women with a keen understanding of finance, did not immediately follow this passage with a clarification of the confusion in these statements. The erroneous language was allowed to stand as though it were complete and correct.

This really bugs the crap out of me because it promulgates noisy fear mongering and averts our mind’s eye from the real issue at hand—where are we investing our wealth?

Although we are in fact spending billions of dollars on the Afghan war, ostensibly to prevent another 9-11 and to ensure that we leave a legacy of productive engagement in the region, we are not “pouring” the money into Afghanistan nor is the money going into some black hole, never to return. Likewise, although this war is indeed costly, it is not a cash furnace “burning banknotes.” These metaphors are often used when decrying Obama’s wide ranging and ambitious agenda. Words like “wasting” or “burning” or “pouring” money imply that the money leaves us. This is simply not the case.

Let’s take a short, simplified walk with some of the dollars we are spending on the Afghan war. According to the same Economist article, it costs $250,000 to deploy each soldier into that operational theater for a year. More expensive than a plumber? Sir, yes sir! Where does that money go? Part of it pays that soldier’s wages. Where does his money go? Very often it pays for his family expenses—diapers, formula, bed sheets, clothes, sneakers, food, beer, toys and trips to the movies. All that stuff is made by companies in which Americans work or invested their money, so the profits accrue to Americans. The $250,000 also pays for the armor, specialized clothing, MREs, and weapons issued to the soldier—all made by American companies. In addition, that soldier is transported in a truck, or plane, or maybe that soldier flies a helicopter or drives an ambulance or a tank. Each of those transport systems and the communication systems that they use to coordinate their activities in Afghanistan are (more often than not) made by American companies, which use that money to pay American workers’ wages. Those American workers use that money to pay for their diapers, formula, bed sheets, clothing, sneakers, food, toys, trips to the movies, maybe an Xbox, a laptop, etc. Who gets that money? Oh yeah, Americans.

By now you can see where I am going with this. We are not burning our cash in Afghanistan. We are allocating a portion of our income and financial assets (in the form of taxes) to an effort we have deemed necessary for our well being—the war in Afghanistan. We pay that money to Americans more often than not, directly and indirectly. Even when we do spend it on Afghans, they often use that money to buy American goods and services.

Do we have the money to pay for the war in Afghanistan? Yes we do. Although it’s a huge expense in absolute dollars, it pales in comparison to what we have allocated to Medicare, Social Security and other programs. And yet even with that pile of cash expended, we still generate more wealth in this country than all of those projects combined. Do we derive economic benefit from the expenditure in Afghanistan? Yes we do. Do we gain political, military, and perhaps even national security from this effort? Historians will argue for decades at least.

The same economic logic applies to healthcare, to education, to infrastructure—in fact to any of the initiatives that President Obama asserts are imperative to our future. The money we spend on those projects comes from you and me in the form of taxes, and it’s paid to you and me for the goods and services we then deliver to ourselves, based on the priorities established by our elected officials, whom we selected to make these allocation decisions for us, on our behalf. In other words, we put money into a jar, from which we pay ourselves to do the work that we asked ourselves to do. Sounds circular? Damn straight it is.

Non-lunatic republicans believe that states are better suited to allocate our taxes than the federal government. Likewise, non-lunatic democrats believe the federal government is better suited to allocate our taxes than the states. The rest of the blue and red flag waving fools are using their party to further their own social agenda. It’s not a question of “burning” or “wasting” or “losing” money. The money doesn’t vanish. That is a spurious argument.

The only important question is—who invests into what projects.

Given the universally abysmal state of our highways, bridges, and public education; given the historically proven need for a strong hand in foreign policy; given the need for stable capital markets to allow inventors and investors to reach amenable terms for creating our future opportunities, I am one republican that believes that for a time, perhaps a long time, we need to spend whatever money we have on projects that help ensure that our nation endures for another 200 years as a significant contributor to the social and economic well being of our planet. A well-fed and well-educated world that can communicate clearly and easily is more likely to result in a peaceful world in which every human being can pursue life, liberty and happiness.

On what better things could we possibly spend our money?

#twitter bullshit math?

Sunday, October 11th, 2009

I have been twittering for a year or so and something is starting to bother me about the math.

First, consider my use:

  • Have experimented with posting rambling updates on my food intake, following the rich and famous, and forwarding intriguing nuggets of news or ridiculously funny (to me anyway) posts by acerbic wits.
  • Have connected my blog with www.twitterpost.com in order to automatically tweet the headline and drive tweeple to read the blog.
  • Have been playing with www.SocialOomph.com (formerly tweetlater) to automate “thanks for following” notes and have begun earnestly tweeting opinions and one-liners on the #leadership topic thread.
  • I am now adding about a dozen new followers per day and am at a whopping 300 or so followers.

Might not sound like much but I’ll get to that in a minute.

In my time playing with twitter, I have noticed something troubling. The majority of my followers have bailed on me—Over 600 people have followed me but only half are still with me. So I had a look at the quitters and learned they were for the most part selling something. Real estate agents, vitamin salespeople, work at home gigs, get rich fast schemes, get more twitter followers schemes, etc. Yes it’s true some people find my tweets annoying or boring and leave annoyed or bored. But when I look at the profiles of those who recently started following me, about half are individuals or organizations seeking followers whom they can pummel with promotional messages. Then I looked at other twitterers with 1000, 5000, and over 10K followers.  It was more of the same junk followers inflating the follower total.

The “rules of the game” in twitter are often regurgitated by many “social media experts.” The central message is: You get more followers by following others. The logic goes like this. Since many people follow the “rule” of following when followed, you quickly add followers just by following. Soon you can have thousands of people who follow you. Of course that’s just nonsense. Nobody I have ever met can actually read more than a few dozen active twitterer’s daily feeds. I saw one active twitterer with 14,000 followers and 14,000 people she followed. Come on. Really? You can read 14,000 people’s posts? Of course not. Nor can you read the posts of 5,000 or even 1000 people. I cannot find the data to prove my point, but I am willing to bet there are millions of people with at least 1,000 followers  and of those, most are junk followers.

Although all twitterers post noise of one kind or another, only the best tweets are worth reading. Keep in mind the Worthy-Post to Noise-Post ratio (the twitter equivalent to signal-to-noise ratio in telecommunications) must round to zero.

Now it is true there are celebs who post actively and intelligently. As a result they have millions of followers. But for the vast majority of not-so-famous people, their followers are mostly junk.

Why don’t I have more than a few hundred followers? First and foremost, I am not a celebrity. Nor am I very funny. I don’t tweet more than a handful of times per week. And I don’t follow the must-follow to build follower rule. I only follow those people who post tweets that I am actually willing to read almost every day. Fortunately most dont post more than once a week, or I’d have to drop many of them. So unless I have a lucky break on America’s Got Talent or become the next Washington State Governor, I will have only a small handful of loyal readers and a bunch of other followers who have forgotten that they followed me and I am lost in their collection of 3,987 twitter friends.

Net net: I have to believe that when the early adopter enthusiasm wears off, twitter will be a cool way to stay in touch with celebrities. A handful of intelligent blogger/tweeters will eventually have a solid following. A cultural revolution in the making will have a brief moment of international awareness like the riots in Iran this summer. The rest will live with a false sense of twitter follower fame until the next  social media darling comes to replace twitter or facebook or both.

Is twitter really like television in the early days? I don’t think so. There isn’t a mass adoption of a new medium. Twitter isn’t really new. It’s just like instant messaging and text messaging, only more unbridled in its reach. There is a lot of conversational noise that hasn’t died down yet. Kind of like the vibrating cacophony of voices in the audience before a concert. Once the real program begins, the masses will ignore each other until intermission. I suspect the same will happen to twitter.

Listening isn’t about getting information. It’s about building confidence.

Thursday, October 8th, 2009

Listening is by far the most important skill for a leader to hone. Have you ever seen a leader who seems unflappable and remains calm in even the most chaotic circumstances? Watch that person closely and you will see the secret to this cool demeanor—focused listening. As a leader, you need to pay attention to the words and actions of others while suspending judgment long enough to allow your intellect to catch up with your instincts. Why? If you speak too soon, you shut off creative impulse. You shut off collaboration. By speaking too soon, you force ideas on your team, even if that is not your intention. When you keep silent long enough to understand fully—not just hear—what someone is saying or doing, you create space for that person to invent, aspire, and contribute. By creating that space, you afford your team a sense of ownership, and you make room for the possibility that someone on your team has the best idea at this moment. By listening carefully, you sharpen all your senses and promote composure among those around you.

Pay Attention

There are many ways to listen; the most obvious is with your ears. However the act of listening is far more nuanced than just hearing words. To do it effectively you must pay careful attention to sounds and much more. The pace, breath, tone, and inflection of the voice all combine to provide the implied meaning, intentions, state-of-mind, and needs of the speaker. Reactions of your fellow listeners can also teach much. When you listen attentively, you shelve your own thoughts, and for a moment there is no judgment, no discrimination, no understanding. Only listening. When you listen deliberately, your mind—which is like a hyperactive dog pulling on a leash—soon starts barking with ideas, assumptions, interpretations, and decisions. If you can hold that dog off for a bit, you can listen with clarity, which leads to hidden insights. Insights that are very useful to a leader.

Listening is not for ears alone. When you practice listening, you sharpen your other senses—sight, smell, taste, and touch. When you listen carefully with your ears, you can sense tone and inflection, cadence and emphasis—all of which combine to provide insight into the meaning of the words spoken. When you apply that same level of attention with your sight, you might notice a flicker in the corner of an eye, a twitch in the corner of a mouth, a shift in stance—all of which combine to provide insights into meaning both overt and covert. You develop a perception skill that few even know exists, let alone master.

Our wonderful human brain can simultaneously process observations made with all our senses. Listening as a practice sharpens that awareness automatically and leads to clearer perception of what is happening with the people on your team and in their environment. This clearer perception leads to competitive advantage because you can identify critical cues about intentions and motivations.

Are You Listening?

Most schools don’t teach listening. Neither do most parents. The closest we get to teaching children to listen is concentration games such as I Spy, Where’s Waldo? and Memory Match Cards, which emphasize keen observation but not listening per se. Early in childhood, by the third grade in the communities I have seen firsthand, we move our kids’ efforts toward serious academic pursuits, which usually involve more than a decade of frenetic preparation for scarce slots among top universities. As a result, we produce well-educated men and women with a singular need to demonstrate that they are the smartest person in the room, who vie to answer first, and who are not very practiced at listening. How many times have you come across this person in your career? Are you one of them?

Some kids growing up in this education system react to competition by becoming a class clown in an attempt to divert academic scrutiny or out of scorn for it. No listening there. Those who cannot compete in the “speed-answer-game” or the corollary “snarky-comment-game” often give up. For them, daydreaming or socializing becomes a deeply ingrained habit. Listening loses out here, too. Other kids end up pursuing non-intellectual competition, usually focused on running or retaining possession of a fast-moving ball. These more athletic youngsters might learn to listen to a coach, but if you have ever coached kids, you know they aren’t usually listening; they just get skilled at looking as if they are.

In other words, education, development, and training in every country on earth are invested in sharpening competitive skills. This is indeed necessary for leadership, but it is not sufficient. I have spent much of my life perfecting a competitive instinct. I love competition, thrive on it, and believe it is the fuel that makes a democracy and capitalism possible. What I find disappointing is that in the midst of all the competitive juices flowing in academic, athletic, and professional endeavors, we neglect to develop the most important skill we will ever have—careful listening. It is the doorway to understanding our world and our place in it, and is the source of every great leader’s strength.

If this doesn’t make sense, consider the fact that a professional baseball coach doesn’t win by hitting a home run.  A baseball coach wins by getting the team to function well and consistently over the course of nearly one hundred ninety games each season. He assembles a team that has the potential to win. There are key athletes on the team that can hit home runs when needed most. There are those who pitch well at the beginning or at the end of a game.  There are others who field the ball well together and make brilliant defensive plays. To guide a team to victory, the baseball coach must have a very clear awareness of the abilities, temperament, and condition of each member of his roster, and an awareness of each of these critical areas is best sharpened by practicing clear and concentrated listening every day on and off the field. With a competitive drive, the coach will make the effort to lead the team well. And, if he listens well and pays attention with all his senses, the coach can consistently lead them to win.

Listen and Learn

Listening is a skill that, like any other, is mastered only through practice. And because listening isn’t part of the standard primary or secondary curriculum, we are all sorely in need of practice. Our minds are very busy. You and I and every person trying to lead an organization has a mind that acts like a dog sniffing, chasing, and barking at shadows and leaves rustling in the breeze. Learning to listen meticulously is a lot like training a dog. Want to learn how? Let’s practice.

Breathe. Find a quiet place. Sit still and comfortably with a reasonably straight but relaxed spine. Close your eyes. Bring all your awareness to your breath as you inhale and exhale as fully and deeply as you can. Allow your mind and body to relax and settle a bit as you use the breath to bring yourself into the present moment.

Observe. Open your eyes and look down at what is in front of you. With your eyes open, you are less likely to start daydreaming. For this practice to be effective, be sure to stay awake and present. What do you hear? Can you hear traffic? Birds chirping? People talking nearby? Your heartbeat? The blood rushing in your ears? A clock ticking? Your breath? Let your mind roam and listen to everything around you, all while your eyes are open.

Concentrate. With your eyes still open, concentrate on your slow, deep breaths in silence. Listen to each breath carefully as it enters your nostrils, passes through your trachea, fills your lungs, and then reverses. Continue to listen to the inhales, exhales, and subtle spaces in between. These sounds and the sounds of all the activity around you can each be perceived individually and collectively in each breath. Every time your mind wanders away from your breath, just smile, take an extra deep breath, and start again. You are concentrating on one point amidst all the activity around you. Just breathe. You are training your mind to sit still instead of roam.

Awareness. You may get bored listening to your breath. You might become frustrated that you end up in a daydream after each few breaths, even though your eyes are open. You might feel antsy. You might realize you are hungry. No matter what you experience, whenever you notice that you have strayed from your breath, you are having a spark of awareness—you just woke up. Use that awareness and just come back to studying each breath while you observe all the other sounds around you and in you. Practice patience with yourself. Practice calm control. Practice staying present. You are gently training your concentration to come back on command.

Practice. Do this for at least five minutes every morning or evening, whenever you are likely to consistently set time aside. If you enjoy this practice, do it for ten or fifteen minutes every day or try it for five minutes three times a day. After two weeks, apply your honed, concentrated listening to someone speaking to you. If you notice that your mind wanders, becomes bored, or starts coming up with ideas while that person is speaking, use that same spark of awareness to return to the speaker. Come back to their voice, just like you came back to studying breaths. With practice, you will notice that you aren’t drifting as much, and you will start to see, hear, and feel cues you may never have noticed before.

Listening Inspires

Leadership is a relationship, and listening is essential to building successful relationships. When people are heard fully and completely, without interruption and without debate until they have finished their point, they are more likely to trust you. They are far more likely to be receptive to whatever ideas you would like them to consider—whether it is a request you are making of them or an opinion you would like to share with them.

Have you ever seen a leader checking email messages on a laptop, BlackBerry, or iPhone during a meeting? Are you one of those leaders? Not only is this enormously disrespectful, it is self-defeating. By not listening and observing, you miss the most valuable information you need to lead, and you simultaneously devalue the speaker and the others in the room. Pay attention to the people in the room or cancel the meeting. Listening isn’t just about getting information you need; the act of listening is the primary tool you have to inspire and motivate others.

It doesn’t take much effort to become a more effective listener. Consistent practice is essential. If you start now, in a few weeks you will already be a more skilled listener than the majority of people on the planet. The average adult attention span has been conditioned by years of television and Web browsing to last only about twenty seconds.9 So if you can focus your attention for five minutes, then you will be operating fifteen times higher than the average. Not a bad start. Even more valuable, by practicing calm listening every day, your demeanor begins to adjust. You begin to be more deliberate, even in the midst of noise and chaos. You will appear unflappable, which is always inspiring. Your natural levels of passion and enthusiasm will not be dampened—they will be more focused.

People will start to take notice and you will too. What are you waiting for? Try it right now. We are at the end of this post. It is a good time to take five minutes to practice listening. And always remember the ancient wisdom of Epictetus:  We have two ears and one mouth so that we can listen twice as much as we speak.

QUICK CUES—LISTENING

  • Be still and silent.
  • Relax your mind and observe.
  • Use your breath to focus your attention.
  • Let go of expectations and judgments.
  • Stay present and focused on your breath.
  • Each time you drift from observing your breath, gently guide yourself back to it.
  • Do this, in silence, five minutes every day.
  • Apply this deliberate awareness to all situations.

When should you be like Moses, Trump, or Socrates?

Thursday, October 1st, 2009

Strength in NumbersSince your primary purpose as a leader is to inspire and motivate a group into sustained action toward a common goal, how do you get people to agree on a common goal? You can certainly impose your will and authority and declare the goals for your organization. Many leaders have done so, with some success. Are you sure you know the right goals? You probably have some really good ideas, but leadership is not a solo performance. You are trying to inspire and motivate others to work hard. By creating an open forum for the exchange of ideas in your organization, you are able to forge agreements and build the relationships that make successful leadership possible.

You need your team to function well and start achieving results now, not in the distant future. For that to happen, you need a collaborative environment that leverages your team’s expertise, insights, and abilities. To foster that environment you must listen more than you speak, and you must avoid making assertions until absolutely necessary. You need your team to think, to aspire, to create, and if you are deliberate about your approach, they will come up with goals and plans better than you could have conceived on your own.

Listening is paramount in unifying the team. Please do not underestimate its value. As a leader, the instant you speak, two-thirds of your team stops thinking. This hefty first cohort will capitulate and begin to interpret or outright solicit your instructions. And of the remaining one-third still thinking, half of them will disagree with you just because you’re the boss. They might not say so out loud, but you can count on them undermining your efforts when you aren’t present. Time and time again over more than two decades, I have seen leaders speak too soon and lose the creativity, enthusiasm, and passion inherent in their team.

In order to illustrate an effective method for reaching consensus, let’s consider three distinct approaches: Moses, Donald Trump, and Socrates.

Moses climbed up a mountain and found God. This model works well for many entrepreneurs who yet to attract investors, employees, or customers. It doesn’t work very often once you have a group of people working with you. After you return from your place of solitude to seek the right strategic plan or  product roadmap, you have a lot of explaining to do. And more often than not, you face the same group of curmudgeons that Moses faced when he came down with the tablets only to find that everyone else had decided to follow the golden calf. Be careful when you use this model.  Moses had the help of God and had trouble.  You will have more trouble than that.

Donald Trump seemed to love to bark “your firedat the end of every Apprentice episode. This of course is the climax after creating a contest in which teams had to prove their worth to his lordship. A variation of this model happens almost ever day in most organizations. The leader sets up an environment in which ideas must compete for approval, and may the best idea win.  Sounds great, but if there is one judge, then then the worst behavior comes out.  When Mr. Trump speaks, his lieutenants instantly adjust their world view—intentionally or subconsciously—to more closely align with his. This is a reasonable and rational reaction to try to win approval, but it creates an inherent bias. Instead of having the best idea win based on its merits, the idea or project that wins merely fits the explicit or deduced views of the leader. In effect, the Trump Model is merely a high drama version of dictating the outcome. The Trump Model isn’t always invoked intentionally, but I have seen more than one leader deliberately use it as a club for beating people into submission in a pitched, public battle. It certainly drives consensus for a while, but the backlash afterward is immense. Remember, if you use public bashing to drive agreement, mutiny isn’t far away and it is rarely overt.

Socrates pursued truth through debate, and his approach emphasized the use of challenging questions to pierce into topics to attain useful insights. To lead using the Socrates Model, you must ask questions not only in group meetings, but also as a course of daily practice with the individuals in your organization. You must spend far more time listening than speaking. In group settings, this means calling intentionally on those who are silent to encourage them to express their views. When you do offer an opinion, you should play contrarian and offer opposing assertions deliberately to instigate debate and then harness the group’s discussion to foster a respectful and rational contest among competing assertions. Most importantly, you need to push the team to compromise on opinions, standardize on facts, and push for a decision with a sense of urgency. You only step in to declare a firm opinion and decision if the resolution isn’t possible in the team.

If you like this post, you can read much more about this and related topics in my book Inspiring Excellence available on Amazon and also at Barnes & Noble.