March 31, 2009

March 29, 2009

Being Accountable - Courtney Paris vs. AIG

Courtney Paris, the senior starting center on the University of Oklahoma women's basketball team, has committed to win the NCAA Championship with strong personal accountability by pledging:
If we don't, which is not even an option, just to put something on the line -- and it might take me the rest of my life -- I will pay back my scholarship because I didn't do what I said I was going to.
One way to view this public declaration is as a publicity stunt. Austin Murphy starts his article "The $64,000 question: Will Courtney Paris' big bet pay off?" by comparing her to Bill Veeck. But he comes to the same conclusion that Mechelle Voepel does in her excellent blog post "Paying it Forward" where she states:
Courtney Paris is a terrific person, the epitome of what people hope their school’s student-athletes will be. I don’t believe it ever crossed her mind that she might be sending out some kind of “message” to UConn or any other team. Her message was intended for the Oklahoma fans and the program to which she feels indebted.
See for yourself with the video below. Paris makes her bold statement in the last minute of this clip, but it's the 9 minutes leading up to it that truly demonstrate her level of indebtedness.

It may be an odd comparison, but I couldn't help but seeing Paris' sense of ownership in direct contrast to the victim language displayed in the resignation letter from AIG executive Jake DeSantis.
As most of us have done nothing wrong, guilt is not a motivation to surrender our earnings. We have worked 12 long months under these contracts and now deserve to be paid as promised. None of us should be cheated of our payments any more than a plumber should be cheated after he has fixed the pipes but a careless electrician causes a fire that burns down the house.
In fairness to DeSantis, he is pledging to donate all of his bonus after taxes to charity. Both these examples are extreme. DeSantis shows no accountability, and Paris takes on too much. Voepel sums it up best:
I also think she’s looked at this in too narrow a way. What both Courtney and Ashley Paris have brought to their university, the Big 12 and the women’s basketball community long ago exceeded the value of their scholarships.
Actions speak louder than words, and if the Sooners don't win, some tough choices will have to play out.
  • If given an easy way out, will Paris insist on paying it back?
  • If so, how and when?
  • Would the school or the basketball program accept the money?
  • If so, what would they do with it?
I'm glad to see a young leader take such strong accountability for results. I also hope time and maturity will help her learn to measure results more broadly. Either way this ends, executives everywhere could learn a lesson from Courtney Paris.

Good luck Sooners! Although, if it's not you all the way, I hope my Boilers take you out in the final four (I guess we all have our tough choices to make).

March 26, 2009

March 24, 2009

I Like Those Shoes! How to Give Free Compliments

These guys know how to make others Smile! Brett Westcott and Cameron Brown, The Compliment Guys, stand outside on a busy walkway every Wednesday at Purdue University and shout out compliments to people passing by. I heard about them on NPR's story At Purdue, Compliments are Complimentary. What's great about this free initiative is it benefits not only the receivers:
"These guys brighten my day every Wednesday. They are so much fun!" - Rachel Taylor
But also the givers:
"I love giving free compliments - there's nothing else I'd rather do" - Westcott
See them in action for yourself:

If shouting out compliments isn't for you, try passing them out instead:

Either way, give someone a compliment today.

March 21, 2009

5 Ways to Use Twitter During a Presentation

I participated in last week's Presentation Reboot workshop at Duarte Design with Nancy Duarte and Garr Reynolds. I found the day to be energizing and full of specific, usable ideas. If you are familiar with their work, Chris Spagnuolo wrote this nice summary of the day on his blog EdgeHopper.

One of the more thought provoking conversations addressed was the role Twitter should or should not play during presentations. While the topic started out about allowing (or even encouraging) participants to tweet during your presentation, the best discussion was after the workshop where several of us brainstormed ways you could use Twitter effectively.
**Disclaimer - I have not actually tried any of these ideas yet, and if I did, I would make sure I had a co-pilot to run the tech side of the presentation while I focused on facilitating.**
Here's some of the better ideas we talked about:
  1. ACTIVITY DEBRIEFS > one of the standard activities at any workshop is to break up into small groups and brainstorm answers to a question. Then the facilitator goes around the room and has each group report from their flip charts. The facilitator could ask each group to tweet their top 2 or 3 answers to a specific hashtag. Then post all the answers up on the screen with the search feature on Twitter.
  2. PARTICIPANT QUESTIONS > services like wiffiti allow participants to text messages or questions that can be displayed instantly. But why not use Twitter to do the trick. Olivia Mitchell seems to have had some success with this as she describes in detail how to in "8 Things I Learnt about Twitter as a Participation Tool."
  3. VOTING > this wouldn't be as slick as other voting apps out there, since it would not automatically tally the results, but still with a co-pilot quickly gathering the results it could work.
  4. WORKSHOP NOTES > create a workshop hashtag and encourage participants to take notes throughout. After the workshop, everyone can tap into the collective notes. It's also a way to stay connected with other participants. This is how Garr and Nancy role modeled using Twitter with #preboot.
  5. PREWORK > same concept with different timing. Create the hashtag before the conference and give participants questions to address as prework.
I can't wait to try one of these out myself. What other ideas do you have? What have you seen work or not work with Twitter and presentations?

March 18, 2009

A.I.G.'s Decision Criteria

A.I.G. made plenty of headlines this past weekend with the reporting of their $165 million payout in bonuses. That's after the company received $173 billion of taxpayer funded bailout. A.I.G. argues that the bonuses were needed to keep top talent. Let's set aside the argument that salaries are for retention and bonuses are for performance, because right or wrong these employees who received the bonuses agreed to take a salary of only $1. Assume for a minute that this was a valid reason for paying out the bonuses. My question is why was that the only criteria used.

One of the lessons that really stuck with me after reading Snowball: Warren Buffet and the Business of Life was to act as if anything you do or say could appear on the front page of the local newspaper. How would you feel about your friends and family reading what you did? And just for an extra safety margin, assume the reporter to be informed and critical. It's an elegantly simple filter to run decisions through.

Clearly A.I.G. did not effectively consider this criteria, because their decision made it to the front page of the paper and the public is downright angry about it. Perhaps one of the benefits of being "too big to fail" is that you don't need to have much public relations savvy, although I'm guessing it sure could come in handy.

March 16, 2009

Life is a Series of Moments

Gina and I were just rewatching the last episode of BBC's "The Office." What a great way to end a serious. Tim had two observations that really jumped out at me tonight. What he had to say about:

The people you work with are people you were just thrown together with. You don't know them. It wasn't your choice, and yet you spend more time with them than you do your friends or your family. But probably all you've got in common is the fact that you walk around on the same bit of carpet for eight hours a day.
And Life
I don't know what a happy ending is. Life is not about endings, is it? It's a series of moments.
Here's the clip where he shares his thoughts. And wow! When he and Dawn finally get together... well it's much more meaningful if you've seen their relationship from the beginning. Enjoy.

The Office UK - Tim and Dawn Finally Get Together

March 12, 2009

I'll Give it 110%

Yesterday, I heard someone pledge, "You can count on me to give it 110%." That phrase bothers me on a couple of levels.
  • It's an exaggeration that borders on over promising. I had a friend who loved to intensify everything with the modifier "very." She was very glad to meet you. She had a very good meal at a very nice restaurant. When something was truly better, she had to resort to very, very. And I found that very, very annoying.
  • It's statistically impossible. You can't give more than 100%. Try giving someone 110% of the money in your wallet, or eating 110% of the food on your plate.
  • It attacks the underlying belief that my grandfather instilled in me that you can always get half way better. 110% implies you can't get any better, you're already 10% above the best.
It's odd to me that we started assigning a percentage to the effort we were willing to give. Especially since I've never heard anyone say less than 100%. "You can count on me to give about 80% on this one." Now, that would be refreshing. Normally in these situations, it should be enough to simply say, "You can count on me." If you need to add extra assurance, you could add, "I'll give it my all."

But somewhere along the line "our all" wasn't enough. We had to add, "I'll give it more than I'm capable of." Well, I say enough is enough. Join me the revolution to stamp out the silly use of this extreme phrase. Start by looking in the mirror and ensuring that you don't say it. And then confront it's usage by others. Here are a few options:
  • Keep-your-friends mild > "No need to promise more than you can possibly deliver. A simple, 'You can count on me' is good enough."
  • The statistical-sarcastic-snob > "Oh 110% you say. I'm estimating with a 95% confidence level that you scored below 60% on your statistics final." Warning: Might be a bit over used.
  • I'm mad-as-hell rude > "What! Only 110%? Why not 111%? Or 112%? Can't you commit to 150% you slacker?"
The only way to stop this outrageous inflation of committed effort is to call it out when it happens - 100% of the time.

March 11, 2009

March 10, 2009

Do Your Rules Incent Bad Behavior?

This week on The Amazing Race, teams had the opportunity to use a U-turn.  The team that decides to use it picks another team they want to penalize by having them complete an extra challenge.  Depending on the team's place at the time, it could be the kiss of death since the last team to arrive each week is usually eliminated.  In previous seasons, the team that ultilized the U-turn had to post their picture next to it, so that all the other teams knew who did it.  This season the producers have switched to a blind U-turn, which means a team could do it anonomously.  

The first three teams to reach the opportunity, all declined, feeling they were in the lead and didn't need it.  I turned to my family and said, "The closer it gets to YOU being on the line, the more likely a team is to use it." Meaning if you're in second to last place, and no other team has used it, you're much more likely to use the U-turn to ensure the last place team doesn't catch you.

But this time, the U-turn was used by a team that was not in danger of losing.  Team four (out of eight) used it not for their own safety, but because their favorite other team was potentially in danger.  Board games like Sorry and Parcheesi have very similiar incentives in place.  When you send another player back to start, you get extra moves.  My seven-year-old daughter often shows this same type of favoritism by sending her brother back instead of me.  I have to encourage her to be more balanced and get me out at times as well.

This exciting episode got me thinking about how many rules - both formal and informal, written and unwritten, deliberate and unintentional - we have that incent our teams to stick it to each other rather than work together to collaborate.   Many companies complain about departments working in silos, but often that's simply a product of the rules of the game.  What other examples have you seen of rules incenting unintended behavior?

March 8, 2009

Maurice Chevalier Tweet

Checkout more about Maurice Chevalier at the Maurice Chevalier Fan Website. See other famous tweets from history or movies: Lincoln, Farmer Hoggett.

March 1, 2009

How to Write a Shareholder Letter: Buffett vs. Lampert

Here's what a big geek I am. I spent the weekend reading shareholder letters written by Warren Buffett and Eddie Lampert. I saw a few similarities between the two and of course some extreme differences. Let's start with the common points.


Both started with an overview of the economy and how their companies performed within that context. Here's how Buffett started:
Our decrease in net worth during 2008 was $11.5 billion, which reduced the per-share book value of both our Class A and Class B stock by 9.6%. Over the last 44 years (that is, since present management took over) book value has grown from $19 to $70,530, a rate of 20.3% compounded annually.* The table on the preceding page, recording both the 44-year performance of Berkshire’s book value and the S&P 500 index, shows that 2008 was the worst year for each. The period was devastating as well for corporate and municipal bonds, real estate and commodities. By yearend, investors of all stripes were bloodied and confused, much as if they were small birds that had strayed into a badminton game.
Lampert focused more on retail, which makes sense being this was the shareholder letter for Sears Holding Company:
This past year was a very difficult year for the world economies and for retail in the United States, and 2009 needs to be the year of restoring confidence and trust in our financial system. We have witnessed the weeding out process that inevitably accompanies difficult economic times, with retail companies like Circuit City, Mervyn’s, Linens ’n Things, and Fortunoff not just filing for bankruptcy, but undertaking complete liquidation. Other retail companies, many of whom are highly regarded, have seen their plans and expectations thwarted by events ranging from consumer distress and the tightening of credit markets to rating agency concerns, all of which have upset normal expectations about how a retail business should be run.

Both chairmen showed confidence by reassuring their shareholders that they will continue to focus on things they can control. Buffett shared his focus this way:
In good years and bad, Charlie and I simply focus on four goals:
  1. maintaining Berkshire’s Gibraltar-like financial position, which features huge amounts of excess liquidity, near-term obligations that are modest, and dozens of sources of earnings and cash;
  2. widening the “moats” around our operating businesses that give them durable competitive advantages;
  3. acquiring and developing new and varied streams of earnings;
  4. expanding and nurturing the cadre of outstanding operating managers who, over the years, have delivered Berkshire exceptional results.
I always enjoy the folksy way that Buffett shares his perspective. Here Lampert used the same focus on the controllable goals strategy, but wrote in language the reads more like generic company speak.
We continue to hone our vision and define what it will take to achieve it. There are five key pillars of our strategy, and I would like to lay them out for you:
  1. Creating lasting relationships with customers by empowering them to manage their lives
  2. Attaining best in class productivity and efficiency
  3. Building our brands
  4. Reinventing the company continuously through technology and innovation
  5. Reinforcing “The SHC Way” by living our values every day

The main body of Buffett's letter focused on internal forces:
Now, let’s take a look at the four major operating sectors of Berkshire. Each of these has vastly different balance sheet and income account characteristics. Therefore, lumping them together, as is done in standard financial statements, impedes analysis. So we’ll present them as four separate businesses, which is how Charlie and I view them.
Buffett went on to detail Berkshire Hathaway's separate business units: Regulated Ultility Business; Insurance; Manufacturing, Service and Retailing Operations; and Finance and Financial Products.  Lampert took a different approach by focusing the body of his letter on external forces:
As discussed above, a number of changes in the regulatory environment greatly impacted Sears Holdings and other companies. Three additional areas quickly come to mind.
Then he had a detailed section dedicated to each of those three areas: Short-selling rules; Pension Reform; and Mark-to-Market Accounting.

But the biggest difference between these two captains of industry is Buffett's passion for his annual shareholder meeting.  
If you decide to leave during the day’s question periods, please do so while Charlie is talking. The best reason to exit, of course, is to shop. We will help you do that by filling the 194,300-squarefoot hall that adjoins the meeting area with the products of Berkshire subsidiaries. Last year, the 31,000 people who came to the meeting did their part, and almost every location racked up record sales. But you can do better. (A friendly warning: If I find sales are lagging, I lock the exits)... 

So join us at our Woodstock for Capitalists and let us know how you like the new format. Charlie and I look forward to seeing you.
If you're as a big of a geek as me and you would like to read the complete letters, you can find them at these links: Warren Buffet's letter and Eddie Lampert's letter.