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Part 2: Fear, career potholes and the weight of social shame.

“I’m afraid to tell people that I am closing my business because I’m afraid of what they’ll think,” was one admission from a panelist.

“My identity was so tied to my job/title that now that I am on my own, I’m not sure how to handle that,” was another.

One acquaintance in the audience seemed a little hesitant when he told me that he had jumped back into the corporate world – as if I might think that was a bad thing because… I might see it as a failure on his part, somehow. (Why would I? People change jobs all the time. people open and close businesses too. It’s a natural cycle.)

Weird how all these different situations had one thing in common: Fear. There was far more angst in that room than I had anticipated. Lots of private thoughts along the lines of “what will people think?” and uneasiness about the stigma that comes from having perhaps failed at something. Lots of people not quite comfortable with lying about it but not quite comfortable admitting it either.

Why? The term social shame comes to mind. Almost everyone in the room seemed traumatized by having been fired, laid off or having failed at building a successful business.

More than a few people in that room worried about what admitting to having failed (or being fired or downsized) might do to their personal brand too. That’s a hell of a burden to carry around, and an unnecessary one at that.

And you know what? I get it. Most of us have been there or are there or will be there at some point. Case in point: In almost 20 years of being an adult, I’ve been fired twice. Not laid off: Fired. For a long time, I was ashamed to admit it. I thought people would hold it against me, that they would assume I sucked at my job or had done something horrible to lose my job. I assumed it would be a double black mark on my employment record. Then one day I realized that was ridiculous. The failures were not my own.

The first time I was fired was a simple case of a CEO being a bully. Dignity and self-respect won. The job lost. As much as I enjoyed the steady paycheck and the job itself, it was an easy choice to make. The loser in that short conflict was the company, not me. (I went on to better and greater things. They didn’t.)

The second time was because my boss wanted me to sign off on fraudulent invoices and bonus manipulation, among other things. I refused to take part in it. The choice was again simple for me: I didn’t need a paycheck that badly. (I’m not going to federal prison for any employer. Not my idea of a good career move.) I was fired within days of refusing to join the scheme. Again, guess who was the loser in that instance? For the second time in my career, I went on to better and greater thing. They didn’t.

As it turns out, getting fired was a great move for me: None of the jobs I had until I went off on my own involved flying to Sydney or Amsterdam or Dubai for business. None of them gave me the opportunity to speak in front of big crowds or meet so many interesting professionals from all over the world. None of those jobs ever gave me the flexibility to spend 2 months in France in the summer with my wife and kids (and dogs) and work from there if I wanted to. None of them would have allowed my life-long dream of publishing a book (and now there are more on the way). I don’t have to work with assholes or shady people if I don’t want to. I don’t have to kiss anyone’s ass to get a promotion. I don’t have to deal with back-stabbers or mean, jealous petty people anymore. Nobody micromanages me. I don’t have to lie to anyone. I have the freedom to succeed or fail on my own terms. There’s also the risk of failure. I have to live with that, but it’s worth it. I love what I do. I love my freedom, however short-lived it may be.

None of these things would have happened if I hadn’t been fired. Getting fired was the best thing that ever happened to my professional career. I was lucky that it’s happened to me not once but twice. The fact that I only get fired once per decade tells me I’m still playing it way too safe. Imagine if I had been fired more often: I would have gotten to this point in my career a lot sooner. What I wouldn’t give for that. (This might be a good place to point out that both of these jobs were in South Carolina – a “right to work state” – where anyone can be fired for pretty much anything at any time for any reason with complete impunity.)

The folks at IDEO are right: Fail early and often. The faster you fail, the faster you work out the bugs. It’s a process. If there’s anything I wish I knew how to do better, it’s this: Quitting. If I knew how to quit, how to walk away, I would save myself the trouble of getting fired at all. (I’m still working on that.)

The thing is, I know this will fail too. What I am doing now won’t last forever. I’ll eventually fire myself or fail outright. Maybe I’ll take a job with an agency or with a company on the client side. Or maybe I’ll just decide to go open up an adventure-racing school in South Africa or a photo studio in Antibes. Why not? Life is an adventure. Don’t fight it. Roll with the punches. Go with the flow. See where the currents take you.

So here I was in this room, surrounded by people who felt pretty bad about having been fired or having (at least in their minds) failed in some way. Some were visibly ashamed. Others were mostly just confused about whether or not they should share what happened to them. Many were scared to some extent about what it meant, about what people might think, about how it would hurt their image or their chances of landing another good job in the future. I’ve been there too, and it’s not a great place to be in your life. No matter how clear your conscience may be, you still feel small, vulnerable and dejected.

For many of us, it goes far beyond fear and shame. There’s anger too: You feel betrayed by the people you served. You gave so much of yourself and made so many sacrifices for them – missing your kids’ soccer games, working late, often dealing with abuse or harassment, enduring ever-shrinking benefits and the annual insult commonly referred to as the annual “raise” because it was the right thing to do, because your believed it would eventually be worth it. You thought that if you could endure it long enough and jump through enough hoops, you would eventually see the light at the end of the tunnel, maybe even make a real difference. Well, that didn’t happen. Someone pulled out the rug from under you. All of the time, energy, love and hope you invested in that company, in your job, it all just evaporated. It’s an awful feeling. It’s traumatic. There’s no way to walk away from that unscathed. I guess the first thing to realize is that even though it’s happening to you, it isn’t just happening to you. It happens to pretty much everybody. It’s a lot easier to handle that kind of trauma and disappointment when you realize it happens to almost everyone. In fact, it happens to the best of us.

I wanted to make a point so I asked everyone in the room to raise their hands if they had ever been fired or laid off from a job. Almost everyone (including the panel) raised their hand. It was fascinating to see the looks of surprise on some people’s faces at the sight of all of those hands in the air. You could literally see the stress melt from a few of them just from knowing they weren’t alone. It helped, I think. At least I’d like to think so. You have to start somewhere.

Now… People in transition (moving back into the corporate world or moving out of it) could focus on personal branding and Klout score optimization. They could focus their energy on trying to become gurus and experts and ninjas, on raising their professional profiles by speaking at events and writing e-books… But none of that will really free them from the fear that will always hold them, their careers and their lives hostage. They’ll just be trading one prison for another, one dysfunctional professional path for another. And because that fear of social shame will be 1000x greater now that their career is “public” than when it was behind the corporate firewall, every potential failure along the way will carry with it a much greater burden. If you think that’s smart, go for it. If that sounds not so smart, you’re right. There’s more important inner work that needs to be done before launching into campaigns of self-promotion. Ask any political candidates whose campaign imploded about that. Ask any rock star or actor in rehab about it too. Ask any banker or accountant in federal prison the same question: How did you get here? Why did this happen? If they’ve given it any thought, they’ll all have the same answer. We’ll probably talk about that in Part 3.

What I want to focus on today though is fear: The fear of not only failing but admitting that you did. Now that I see how much damage and pain that kind of fear causes, I feel like sharing a few insights that our panel touched on with the rest of you. Some may apply to you. Others may not. You may disagree and that’s fine. I just hope that they will help somebody. Anybody.

So if you’re feeling bad about closing up shop or leaving a job, don’t. And if you know someone who’s having a really hard time with this right now, feel free to share this with them.

Here are a few takeaways from our panel on career transitions:

1. If you haven’t been fired at least once or twice in your career, you might not be doing it right. And if you haven’t failed once or twice at making a business successful, you probably aren’t thinking big enough. Go for failure #3 as soon as you can. Look, unless you’re insanely lucky, failure is part of the success equation. If you haven’t known any yet, chances are that you’re coloring inside the lines maybe a little too well. You might have even stopped moving forward and testing the limits of what you could do. If you’re 100% happy with that, great. If not, getting fired from a job that wasn’t right for you or not biting off more than you could chew with a big idea might not be the worst thing that’s ever happened to you. Sometimes, life has a weird and painful way of doing you favors. Try, fail, repeat. Try, succeed, repeat. Don’t ever stop. No matter what.

You might have heard it a thousand times already, but here’s the name I always think about when people wonder if they (or their spouse) can take one more failure: Thomas Edison. The guy tried and tried and tried to make his light bulb idea work until it did. Imagine if he had quit after 3 tries? 10 tries? 100? here’s what he had to say about when asked about his successive failures:

Young man, why would I feel like a failure? And why would I ever give up? I now know definitively over 9,000 ways that an electric light bulb will not work. Success is almost in my grasp.

Try again. It doesn’t matter how many attempts it takes. Don’t quit just because it’s hard or people look at you funny. What have they ever done? You’ll never regret having tried and failed. I guarantee though that you will regret having quit or given up on a dream. There’s no question about it. Failure is necessary. Failure is good. It teaches you everything you didn’t think to ask.

It’s okay.

2. If you’ve been fired or downsized, if your business has ever failed or run its course, you aren’t alone. It isn’t just happening to you. People get fired and laid off all the time. Companies fail or just get stuck. It happens. Every job ends. Companies close their doors. Departments lose their funding. Assholes who hate you get promoted and fire you just out of spite or fear or jealousy. Learn whatever you can from each experience and move on. As painful and embarrassing as failure of any kind it may be, it is never truly a failure if you’ve derived a valuable insight from it and try again. Dust yourself off and try again. Every pioneer went through the same thing. What put them in the history books is this: Where others would have given up, they didn’t.  If you’re going to fail (and you will), you’re just like everyone else. If you want to get better results than everyone else, make every failure count.

3. Failures in your career hurt as much as failures in love. But pain is just pain. It wears off. Get a head start on the healing. Getting fired is like getting dumped by your boyfriend or girlfriend. It stings. It makes you feel like an asshole. It puts your self-worth in question. We’re just wired that way. If you feel bad about getting canned or laid off, welcome to being human. It’s healthy. Mourn, take a week off. Then get going again. Don’t take any of it personally. See #2.

4. This one is important as it relates to social shame: Nobody holds it against you that you’ve “failed” at anything. Seriously. Nobody is going to talk about you behind your back and peg you a failure. (Okay… perhaps your enemies will, but who cares what they think? They’re assholes anyway.) People in your community will never hold it against you if you’ve lost your job or if your startup failed. No one will ever peg you a loser or damaged goods or a liability as long as you learn from the experience and move on.

Think about it: Do you sit around and make fun of people who’ve been laid off? When Apple fired Steve Jobs back in the day, did we all have secret parties to make fun of him? No. If we even cared, we wondered what he was going to build next. It was exciting. And you know what, if he hadn’t been fired from Apple when he was, Apple might not have become what it is today. Worst case scenario: People are indifferent to your successes or failures. They’re just too busy with their own lives to notice or care about yours as much as you think they do. The rest of us want the best for everyone around us. We want people to succeed and be happy. So… if you’re feeling bad about where you are, chin up: A lot of us are rooting for you.

This whole notion of social shame in regards to failure is an illusion. Don’t fall for it. Your bakery or web design company failed after 14 months? That’s too bad. You’re still everyone’s hero for trying. People will miss that bakery or web design firm, sure, but they’ll only care about one thing: Now what? If you took a job at XYZ Manufacturing, people will be glad you did. If you’re launching a startup in the spring with a few investors, they’ll be thrilled too. Everyone wants you to do well. No one will ever hold it against you if you tried and fail as long as you keep trying. Chin up, kid. You don’t have to apologize. You don’t need to spin it or put on airs. Everybody runs into hurdles. Nothing to be ashamed of. Ever. Don’t do that to yourself. It’s a waste of energy anyway.

5. To quote Tyler Durden, “you are not your job.” You can say that you are your profession, sure, but you are not your job.

For starters, being a brand manager isn’t the same as being VP of Brand Communications at SCB Telecom*. If some douchebag at SCB Telecom gave you the pink slip because you didn’t support his horrible program three years ago and now he can get even with you, go be a brand manager somewhere else. (Hopefully somewhere that will value your contributions a little more than SCB Telecom did.) Being a designer is more important than just being the lead glove designer at Gucci or Chanel. You’re a designer no matter who you work for or what you design. If your company fails, if your label gets sold off, if your boss chases half your team away, it doesn’t change what or who you are.

Whenever a job ends, your profession doesn’t. Hop to another island. It may take six months to find one. It may take ten years of island-hopping to find the right one. You might not ever be happy until you discover your very own island. It doesn’t matter. What island you live on doesn’t change what you are. A job is just a job, no matter how cool it is.

* (Made-up company.)

More than that, you are more than just your profession. You’re also a lot of other things: A parent, a brother or sister, someone’s child, friend and neighbor, a sports fan, a foodie, an artist, a runner, a kite surfer, an equestrian… whatever your interests are. You aren’t just your job. You’re also your interests, your hobbies, your passions, your relationships, your life experiences and more still. Chances are that who you are is far more rooted in all of these things than to your job. So does your value as a human being.

Remember those 5 most common regrets people talk about on their deathbeds? That.

6. Don’t take failure so seriously. In fact, don’t take yourself so seriously either. Relax so you can learn. Learn so you can solve. Solve so you can adapt. Adapt so you can overcome.

Fear is the enemy of innovation. It’s the enemy of design, the enemy of progress. Fear of embarrassment, fear of failure, fear of rejection: They’re all working against you. Whenever fear tells you to back off from an idea or a goal, that’s when you know you’re onto something.

One way to kill fear of failure dead is to not worry so much about the shame and embarrassment that you’ve attached to that fear. Laugh more. Have more fun with what you’re doing. Don’t let stress get in the way. Whether you’re winning or losing, have fun. Ever listened to an 80-year old tell an embarrassing story from their youth? As mortified as they may have been then, they can look back on it now and laugh. That doesn’t suck.

If you’re going to crash and burn, do it with style. Don’t slink away. Crash, burn, get up, take a bow, then go laugh it off. If you can ever learn to laugh at failure and carry on, no one and nothing will ever be able to break your will. Ever.

Look around. Almost everyone around you has failed at something. They may hide it well, but they have.

7. Put it all in perspective: Nobody is shooting at you. You aren’t being targeted by enemy artillery. You didn’t just lose a leg or an arm in a roadside I.E.D. attack. You don’t have cancer. There’s no giant tidal wave about to crush and drown you, no nuclear power plant a mile away about to melt down. That shit is bad. Losing your job or closing down your company isn’t. Get over the fear and embarrassment. They’re a waste of energy. You’re going to be fine. Okay? This is small stuff.

8. Every job has a beginning and an end. Period. One way or another, the job you have today will end someday. Could be tomorrow. Could be next week. Could be in twenty years. How it ends or why might not even matter. What matters is that the inevitable is… well, inevitable.

If you’ve never seen The Kingdom, there’s a great scene in which FBI Director James Grace (played by the always brilliant Richard Jenkins) is being pressured to act against his conscience by the Attorney General (his boss). It’s clear in the scene that the AG won’t take no for an answer. James Grace knows if he doesn’t play nice, his career at the FBI is over. Instead of caving to pressure just to save his own ass, he shares with the AG what he learned long ago about the nature of jobs. After a brief pause, this is his answer to the threat:

You know, Westmoreland made all of us officers write our own obituaries during Tet, when we thought The Cong were gonna end it all right there. And, once we clued into the fact that life is finite, the thought of losing it didn’t scare us anymore. The end comes no matter what, the only thing that matters is how do you wanna go out: On your feet or on your knees.

I bring that lesson to this job. I act, knowing that someday this job will end, no matter what. You should do the same. 

There’s a lot of wisdom in that answer. A lot of courage too, but a lot of wisdom. Heed it.

Every company runs its course. Every job ends. When you remember that you are far more than your job, that life is about more than the title on a business card, the necessary failures you’ll encounter along the way won’t seem so big anymore.

Do the best you can. If you trip and fall or life punches you in the face, get back up. Lean on your family and friends. Banish embarrassment to the curb. Don’t bear the burden of fear, shame or sadness alone. Do whatever you have to do to get back on your feet as fast as possible and just start putting one foot in front of the other again.

Someday, when you’re on your deathbed too, you will regret every minute you wasted feeling sorry for yourself. You’ll wish you had a way to erase every day that you “waited” to try again and do them all over again.

I’ve rambled long enough. Stay tuned for Part 3. We’ll be talking about the danger and ultimate price of bullshit. In the meantime, put your own work aside and go help someone kick ass today. You’ll be amazed how rewarding that feels.

Cheers,

Olivier

*          *          *

The social business building textbook for executives. Now available everywhere:

CEO-Read  –  Amazon.com  –  www.smroi.net  –  Barnes & Noble  –  Que

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Three completely unrelated things came together this past week that individually weren’t all that fascinating but together formed a something  I think needs to be given form to.

1. Fear. I was a guest panelist at Greenville’s Switching: Leaving Freelance for the Corporate ladder and vice versa event. My fellow panelists and I shared insights about the pros and cons of working either inside the corporate machine or outside of it. (Really great topic, by the way.) Because many of the folks who attended were in the midst of a transition – some going back into the corporate world and some coming out of it – one of the themes during the event’s discussions was the role that jobs and job titles play in our self worth. Some of that can be pretty negative so we’ll talk about that in Part 2.

2. Bullshit. Discussions about my last 4 posts (The Last Year, R.I.P. Personal Branding, and the last two bits on how to avoid becoming a cog in the social media / marketing bullshit machine) started to sound very similar: There’s what’s real and there’s what’s made-up. We all increasingly feel pressure to keep up with our peers, to put on appearances and to appear more successful and happy and normal than we really are: Everyone’s a best-selling author now. Everyone’s an award-winning expert. Everyone has worked with Fortune 500 companies and major brands. Everyone is launching startups and raising millions of dollars in funding. Right. Except no. A lot of that is just smoke and mirrors. It’s spin. But because so many people are doing it and because it is amplified by the 24/7 onslaught of self promotion, link-bait SEM content and personal branding on Twitter, Facebook, Google+, Youtube, Quora, Foursquare, Klout, blogs and five dozen other overlapping platforms, every little bit of spin and bullshit gets amplified to the point where it becomes not only believable but overbearing.

We’ll talk about that and the impact it is having on all of us, on the business world, on politics, right down to the state of the economy. Bullshit affects everything, and never in a good way. Look around. It’s like someone’s open the floodgates. How’s that been working out? If bullshit helped get us in this mess, do you really think more bullshit will help dig us out?

3. Truth.

This: The top 5 regrets people make on their death beds. Read it. (It’s short.)

When it all falls away and there’s no one left to impress, when you would give anything for another few hours of life or maybe a chance to do it all over again, all that will be left to contemplate is the truth. You want a glimpse into those last few hours of your life when you’ll look back and consider what you really spent your life doing? Here is a stripped down version:

1. I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.

When people realize that their life is almost over and look back clearly on it, it is easy to see how many dreams have gone unfulfilled. Most people had not honoured even a half of their dreams and had to die knowing that it was due to choices they had made or not made.

2. I wish I didn’t work so hard.

This came from every male patient that I nursed. They missed their children’s youth and their partner’s companionship. […] All of the men I nursed deeply regretted spending so much of their lives on the treadmill of a work existence. […] By creating more space in your life, you become happier and more open to new opportunities.

3. I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.

Many people suppressed their feelings in order to keep peace with others. As a result, they settled for a mediocre existence and never became who they were truly capable of becoming. Many developed illnesses relating to the bitterness and resentment they carried as a result.

We cannot control the reactions of others. However, although people may initially react when you change the way you are by speaking honestly, in the end it raises the relationship to a whole new and healthier level. Either that or it releases the unhealthy relationship from your life. Either way, you win.

4. I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.

When faced [with approaching death] […] it is not money or status that holds the true importance for them. They want to get things in order more for the benefit of those they love. […] It all comes down to love and relationships in the end. 

5. I wish that I had let myself be happier.

Many did not realise until the end that happiness is a choice. They had stayed stuck in old patterns and habits. The so-called ‘comfort’ of familiarity overflowed into their emotions, as well as their physical lives. Fear of change had them pretending to others, and to their selves, that they were content. When deep within, they longed to laugh properly and have silliness in their life again. When you are on your deathbed, what  others think of you is a long way from your mind. 

Hat tip to Zsofia Tallai for sharing that link. We’re going to talk about that article as well.

Those three pieces are connected, and this week we’re going to talk about all of that. No ROI discussions. No social business focus. Just this. Because the problems we are dealing with right now, the reasons why the value of social business is still not clear to so many executives and decision-makers (let alone ROI), the reason why world economies are in shambles, the reason why so many people are divided and out of work and stressed out of their minds is this: We’re addicted to both fear and bullshit. We’re stuck in cycles of fear and bullshit. Everywhere we go, it’s there and we can’t escape it, and it’s a serious problem.

Stay tuned for Part 2.

*          *          *

The social business building textbook for executives. Now available everywhere:

CEO-Read  –  Amazon.com  –  www.smroi.net  –  Barnes & Noble  –  Que

Read Full Post »

The unfortunate yet necessary business of getting punched in the mouth

You learn a lot about yourself during your first fist fight. Especially when you know for a fact that the other guy is going to mop the deck with your face just because he can.

And that’s just the thing: It’s one thing to get into a fight you’re pretty sure you’ll win. It’s another completely to get into a fight even though you’re pretty sure you’ll lose, and still find the courage to stand your ground and see things through.

Close your eyes and hold that thought. We’ll come back to this in a sec.

Okay, so I know… this may seem like an odd topic for a blog that deals mostly with brand management, social media, business strategy, etc., but as I found with my “21 things” blog last week, there is a deeply human side to making inspired business decisions that we need to start focusing on a little more (not just here – in general). Why? Because business decisions don’t happen in a vacuum. People make these decisions. Human beings, with good days and bad days, filled with courage and plagued by cowardice, swelling with passion and weighed down by apathy. People as imperfect and flawed and riddled with self-doubt as you and I. Yes, the Steve Jobs, Jack Welches, Henry Fords, Walt Disneys, Bill Gates, Richard Bransons and Julius Caesars of the world are just as human as the rest of us, with their own problems, their own doubts, their own insecurities and their own challenges to overcome. But one of the things that separates them from the majority of people is their willingness to step forward even when the odds are squarely against them, and risk taking a very public and humiliating beating if things don’t turn out as they had hoped. But even they can come to a professional impasse if their “education” along the way skipped the essential rite of passage known as the boyhood brawl.

The first thing you probably need to get from this post is this: Because decisions cannot be divorced from the people who make them, who we are as human beings impacts those decisions at least as much as what we do professionally: A CEO is a role, not a personality trait. A general is a rank, not an emotional profile. A manager is a job description, not an indication of natural leadership. In other words, don’t let the cover story fool you: a title printed on a business card doesn’t reflect an individual’s ability to lead, inspire and show cunning any more than the size of their bank account or the make of their car.

What does a title really tell you about someone? If you live within a regimented corporate or military culture, it tells you something about where they stand in the pecking order and what power they yield over you and others, but that’s really about it. In matters of leadership, courage, integrity and mental fortitude, a job title doesn’t really tell you a whole lot about someone’s mettle. More to the point, a job title doesn’t tell someone a whole lot about themselves and what they are capable of when the chips are down.

The importance of dangerous tests and contests

Back in not-so-ancient times, boys were routinely tested as they grew up: Going into the woods alone for the first time. Climbing the tallest tree. Swimming across the river. Diving to the cold dark bottom. Catching your first fish. Killing your first fowl. Standing your ground against the older village or neighborhood kids. Tribal rights of passage. By the time a man reached adulthood, he knew exactly who he was. He knew his own strengths and weaknesses.

And the rest of the community did as well.

Via regular social tests and challenges, stars rose, stayed stagnant, or fell from grace. There was no hiding from it. The pecking order in human communities was always in flux, with the smartest and strongest leading, and others following, hoping for their chance to prove themselves someday and improve their position.

Only now, it seems that such personal tests, the ones that cemented not only reputations but confidence, self respect, courage and wisdom have fallen mostly by the wayside. Just for the record, graduating from kindergarten is not a rite of passage. Landing a 20% off coupon isn’t either. Neither is unlocking a fifth level prestige badge in COD Modern Warfare 2 on X-Box Live.

Here’s an observation. It isn’t a judgment. Just an observation: None of the people I have ever worked with or worked for while I was in the corporate world had ever been in a real fight. None had ever fought back when the bully shoved them in a locker or stole their lunch money. None had ever stepped in to help someone being mugged. None had ever finished a fight that some drunk jerk forced on them or one of their peers. And… coming from France – a country where little boys haven’t yet been taught that getting into the occasional fisticuff is a sign of deplorable behavior – I found this both surprising and unfortunate. Not because I find fights to be particularly edifying (I don’t enjoy them a whole lot, especially since I am not Chuck Norris), but because fighting – which mostly amounts to dealing with fear, confrontation, pain and the social pressures not to quit or lose – has been part of young mens’ “education” for tens of thousands of years. Like it or not, fighting each other is baked into our DNA. Men need these types of experiences in order to move from childhood to adulthood. Sport can be a decent substitute for some time, martial arts as well, but ultimately, nothing can truly take the place of actual combat. By creating an entire generation of men who have never experienced the fight or flight gauntlet of a knuckle duel, I am not certain that we are properly preparing young men for the types of mental and emotional challenges required of them in high stakes leadership positions.

Asserting yourself in a business meeting, negotiating a settlement, managing a takeover, speaking to investors, presenting to a crowd of bloggers and journalists, convincing banks to back your next venture, these things don’t go well unless you have a certain level of quiet confidence about you, the kind of confidence that frees your mind to get the job done rather than worry about whether or not you’re up for it.

Reassuring the American people that the country is safe, customers that it is still safe to bank with you, drivers that your cars won’t accelerate out of control and explode, investors and employees that your company is still a sound bet, and the public that you have the oil spill under control can’t be left to folks who haven’t tested themselves to find out what they are really made of.

Remember Michael “Brownie” Brown, the guy in charge of FEMA during the Katrina crisis? His impeccably pressed, perfectly white dress shirts? Not a hair out of place while the people of New Orleans drowned and starved to death? Nice guy, I’m sure. Smart too. Probably great with the whole IAHA Arabian horse thing, and corporate luncheons and country-club brunches, before being appointed to lead the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Except… Wrong guy for the job. Why? Hmmm. You tell me.

Now put a military officer – especially an Iraq or Afghanistan combat veteran – in his place to do the same job and see what happens. My bet: Night and day. The difference between both men? One made a point to put himself through the gauntlet time and time again. The other, not so much.

Rites of passage matter. They matter a lot.

Fight Club is only a novel. This is real.

If I am starting to sound like Fight Club’s Tyler Durden, so be it. There is a reason why Chuck Palahniuk’s novel struck a chord when it came out. As much as the novel itself may be an unapologetic exaggeration of the death of masculinity in modern times, its message is dead on target. And the impact that a generation of untested men in leadership positions has already had on the corporate world may be in great part responsible for some of the trouble we are in: Enron. Wall Street. The massive oil spill in the Gulf: All arrived at by decisions made by not by incompetent men, but rather untested, socially and emotionally incomplete men.

Think this is a stretch? Possibly. But consider that mid-life crises tend to happen to men riddled with complexes and self-doubt. Far more than an overcompensation or an indulgence brought about by professional success. Any decent Jungian psychotherapist can explain the link between mid-life crises and a common mother complex in men: Adult in form but not in heart. Boys whose bodies grew up but whose souls didn’t. The erosion of significant, terrifying, often violent rites of passage from childhood to adulthood, particularly when it comes to my gender, is a problem that doesn’t only impact divorce rates and Porsche sales in the US, but also the business world and the economy as a whole: A man who isn’t whole cannot effectively lead. He is a Fisher King, an impotent, lame-duck regent whose wound infects his entire kingdom and drags it down with him. When captains of industry are drawn drawn from among the ranks of untested men rather than those who can and should lead, the system breaks down: Exploration, experimentation and progress come to a grinding halt. Strategic planning takes a hit. Appearances begin to overtake substance. Nepotism prevails. Good old boys networks take root. Mediocrity, hypocrisy and corruption begin to poison corporate and political cultures. The safety of artificial comforts replaces strife. Warm cocoons of denial begin to form and thicken.

There is something missing in a man who hasn’t pushed himself far beyond what he thought were his own limits. Something we look for in leaders. Something without which our faith in a man cannot ever be truly realized. We all felt it in the school yard. On the playing field. In boot camp. And yes, in the board room. A phony is a phony. The real deal, however, walks wrapped in the knowledge of who he is as a man, because at least once in his life, he walked deep into the dark recesses of his cave and found what really lurked there.

Growing up in France in the 70’s and 80’s – and having been raised in a family of combat veterans and citizen soldiers – making it to adolescence without a few black eyes and busted knuckles wasn’t an option. Not that I was pushed to go looking for fights, but let’s say that certain circumstances were occasionally brought up around the dinner table as acceptable reasons to find out what I was made of. For many little French boys, playing cowboys, cops and musketeers wasn’t just play. It was preparation for an inevitable school yard confrontation that would determine much about the types of men they would later become.

A quick word about the French and silly stereotypes

Not that the French fight a lot or win a lot of wars, or anything. Aside from the Foreign Legion (mostly composed of foreigners at that) and a few key Police and military units, French culture isn’t exactly known for its warrior spirit. The Gauls were pretty solid warriors, but the Roman legions dealt with them in the end. Twice in the last century the Germans cut through our borders like a warm knife through butter. So yeah, sure, we invaded England back in the day, we’ve had bloody revolutions, and Napoleon helped us unlock our very own bloody conquests badge on Foursquare, but in general, the French are relatively well-behaved anti-violent people. Even our soccer fans are pretty tame compared to England’s. We also aren’t particularly fond of violence in sports and entertainment (Americans, in contrast, like their sports and movie heroes to be full-contact – while tennis doesn’t exactly require helmet and shoulder pads). We don’t really like guns. The French, as people of the world go, are not high up on the socially violent list.

Yet, in sharp contrast with many of my American peers who grew up on violent entertainment and a glorification of rogue warrior tales, my childhood and early adult years were not without incident. Starting with a few kids at my school trying to work the pecking order to their advantage to street thugs in downtown Brussels looking to score my wallet, from angry boyfriends looking to save face to drunk French soldiers aiming to prove themselves by knocking out a few sailors, I’ve had to deal with unfortunate contests of the knuckle-to-face variety a number of times. Before I go on with my tales of clumsy hand-to-hand combat, let me make it clear that I didn’t always prevail. I am not Jean Claude Van Damme. Quite the contrary. My roundhouse kick is weak. My karate chop is clumsy. My punch often misses the mark. So by default, the lessons in this post have nothing to do with winning or beating the odds. We’re talking about something else altogether today.

Which brings us back to that mouthful of blood thing. You learn a lot about yourself, shaking off the pain of a punch to the mouth. It’s a simple fight or flight reflex: Stunned and dazed, your blurry surroundings spinning around you, searing pain flashing across your face and a dull ache spreading deep into your skull, you are at once confronted with two conflicting emotions: The first – back off and hope the punishment is over. The second – get back on your feet and feed the other guy a Royal McKnuckle-with-Cheese sandwich out of principle, even if it earns you another trip to the cold, hard deck.

Fight or flight: DNA, tens of thousands of years of evolution, and the importance of not running away

Fight or flight. It’s a simple choice. And, as my friend Ben Schowe would say, “it’s just science.”

In terms of personal tests, this goes well beyond the simple (yet grueling) act of surviving boot camp, completing your first 5K, passing the bar, or completing an Ironman triathlon. In fact, in a very real way, getting into a fist fight teaches you as much – if not more – about yourself as summiting Everest or swimming across the English Channel.

Why? Because there is a huge difference between walking to the sidelines and running from a fight. You can quit Ranger school. You can quit an Ironman. On a mountain top, you can stop and turn back to base camp. But walking away from a fight once the first punch has connected, that’s a very different thing. It’s fight or flight in its purest form. It’s the difference between a dog baring its teeth and having another go at some melee carnage… or lying on its back with its tail coiled up between its legs.

In war, you can hold your ground and engage the enemy or you can throw down your guns and run away. Same thing. Except for most people nowadays, at least in the Western world, war is something other people get paid to deal with. It’s something that happens overseas and on TV. There’s no draft anymore. Violence is being erased from “civilized” civilian society. It has become entertainment. A stylized fantasy. You get to see the moves and hear the sounds, but you don’t get to feel the pain. And yet the pain has something to teach.

Like I said, you learn a lot about yourself during your first fight. And your second. And your third. What you learn is – what you learn first, anyway, is – whether or not you have any real fight in you. When that first punch in the face hits you and your eyes flash just as what feels like a brick flying at 500 miles per hour turns the entire front of your skull into a flaring, throbbing strobe of pain, you get your first glimpse of who you are. Before you even land on your ass, your brain is already trying to decide if you will simply lie down and hope the fight is over, or spring up and hit the guy back twice as hard and see how he likes it.

What my first fight taught me

I remember my first fight vividly: Second grade. Parc Monceau. The biggest kid in my class decided he was going to use the smallest kid in the class (me) to cement his Alpha status for the school year. Words were exchanged, shoves ensued, and next thing I know, we were rolling around in the dirt, scraping our knees and elbows, trying land a solid hit on the other. Planting a solid punch at that age would have surely ended the fight – to the delighted cheers of our classmates – and would have secured immediate popularity for whomever emerged victorious. As it turns out, neither one of us did. But the other kid, desperate to break free from the scuffle, accidentally head-butted me in the face, knocking me clear off him. I remember hearing the ugly thud sound of his skull bouncing off my cheek, my head snapping back, and my little French behind landing squarely on the hard-packed dirt. The other kids immediately fell silent and stared at us to see what would come next. I tasted blood in my mouth, from where I had bitten my tongue. I was surprised by the taste… And by the fact that I was more excited than scared.

Up until that moment, I had imagined that being on the receiving end of a head-butt would be the worst thing in the world. Yet there I was, realizing that the other guy wasn’t as strong, as mean, as dangerous or as invincible as I thought he was. And, equally important, realizing that perhaps I had more of a fight in me than I originally thought. Fighting back tears of pain and fear, I got back up, swallowed a mouthful of blood, and threw myself at him. Though he was a lot taller and bigger than me, I tackled him and knocked him to the ground. The rolling around and wild kicking and punching resumed, but before either one of us could land a solid punch, the fight was broken up by our teacher. We were both sent to the principal’s office – the dragon-like Mme Gomez – and sat there for about fifteen minutes before she finally called us in.

Those fifteen minutes were invaluable: The entire time, not once did the other kid dare return my stare. After a quick inspection of my knuckles and clothes, and after having pondered what punishments would follow both at school and at home, I looked over at him and caught him quickly blinking away. Feeling that I was still staring at him, he didn’t look up again. It was at that moment, not before, that I realized I had won the fight. Not because I had beaten him, mind you – I hadn’t. What I realized was that, for me, the real fight wasn’t against him. It was against myself: Fight vs. Flight.  Flight lost. I wanted more. Test passed.

From then on, I knew I would never again be too afraid to stand my ground. That moment of clarity is something I have taken with me into every difficult, stressful situation since.

Going through something like this, as simple as it may seem, is a defining moment in a man’s life, and one that far too many boys today never get to experience, to their own detriment, and that of society as a whole when they eventually join the workforce.

To this day, I don’t remember a thing about what the principal had to say or what my punishment was. I grinned from ear to ear the rest of the day, beaming with pride and excitement at the realization that there was more to me than just pretend courage. Later, what I remember from being walked to my mother’s car by my angry teacher wasn’t the fear of punishment or the embarrassment of the public escort, but the looks of awe I saw in the other kids’ eyes. Still grinning at my scowling mother after my teacher explained what had happened, I hopped into her Autobianchi and told her my side of the story: He started. It wasn’t my fault. I was only defending myself. He got what he deserved. I took a skull to the face and it still hurt a lot, but it was okay. She lectured me all the way home, but I know that behind the stern threats of being sent to Jesuit boarding school if I couldn’t behave, was a quiet pride that I hadn’t punked out. Later that afternoon, my father  inspected my swollen black eye, obviously amused by the entire incident, and probed me for details until my mother reminded him that the brawl wasn’t something to be proud of. Yet it was, and all three of us knew it.

The kid never bothered me or any of my classmates again. I don’t even remember his name anymore. It doesn’t matter.

Contests of this type happened again over the years, each one teaching me a little bit more about myself, until I graduated to the more subtle and underhanded type of political combat favored by many corporate types.

Leadership from the outside-in: Understanding the mechanics of the pecking order

Here’s the thing, and be sure not to underestimate the potency of the metaphor: We are all either lions or lambs. Men walk into a conference room, a basketball court, a bar, a gym, the first thing they do is size each other up. Hierarchies are established before anyone takes the initiative to speak. Body language, stress hormones, eye contact and behavior help determine the social order in a matter of minutes if not seconds. Before the lions begin to fight for the top spot, the lambs aremarked and set aside. Few of us ever talk about it, and for many men, the process is completely subconscious, but it happens everywhere men go. This has probably been going on since long before we lived in caves.

Care to see a fine example of the process? Watch the first twenty minutes of Ronin, John Frankenheimer and DavidMamet’s tale of trust and betrayal among intelligence operatives. In any group of men, a pecking order must be established before the group can function. Though the process now takes into account job titles and artificial leadership, lambs are not lions. A leader in title only is a liability to himself and the group he is responsible for.

Riddle me this: How can you earn the trust and respect of a company of professional soldiers if even one of them thinks he is more qualified than you to lead them all? If he thinks he is a better soldier, a better leader? Stronger, faster, tougher?

While you ponder the question, here’s something to think about: How is a group of men in uniform any different from a group of men in suits? Each culture may emphasize certain leadership qualities differently, but the principles are the same: If a leader is imposed on the group rather than arrived at by mutual selection, then the leader must prove his worth, or his tenure is doomed from the start. If the guy in charge, when sized up by the rest of the men in the room is found… wanting, you are looking at a dangerous level of inevitable dysfunction that will result in disaster somewhere along the road.

The weakest guy in the room can’t be the leader. Regardless of what his business card says, it just doesn’t work that way. You can’t get rid of thousands of generations of evolution just because we’ve decided to trade spears for pens and caves for cubicles. It may seem silly, but it’s also true and well worth acknowledging.

The true value of a mouthful of blood

I know this is going to sound strange, but a CEO who has put himself through the gauntlet – whether it was a fist fight, a combat tour in Iraq or a wrestling match against a great white shark knows how to be fearless in the face of uncertainty. He can look his competitor in the eye, say “bring it,” and mean it. He can look at an economic crisis as an opportunity to prevail against adversity and cement his company’s reputation by taking market share rather than merely hoping to hold on to what it has.

A man who has the confidence to stand his ground in the face of adversity, a man who has learned the value and excitement of fighting for something he believes in, a man who knows that no amount of pain or fear will weaken his resolve, this kind of man can lead any company away from defeat, towards success.

The guy who has never been punched in the face doesn’t yet know how tough he is. That man doesn’t know if he should get up or beg for mercy when his lip gets split. He doesn’t know what he is made of yet. Take him by surprise, upset his routine, put him in the hurt locker, and he sits there wondering what he should do next. He sits there stunned, gagging on a mouthful of his own blood, wishing he weren’t in so much pain. For precious seconds, he hesitates, not yet knowing what to do. Indecision: The antithesis of leadership.

The CEO, the Senior VP, the Director of this and that, untested, are all liabilities. Lamb playing at being lions.

The truth of it is this: What you learn fighting off bullies in your childhood, learning to stand your ground and take real hits comes back to either serve or haunt you later in life, when faceless enemies set their sights on your endeavors. Knowing that you can overcome physical adversity and survive your fear of the unknown arms you with the ability to make intelligent decisions in the heat of the moment. It teaches you to keep a cool head when everyone else panics. It teaches you not to retreat unless you absolutely have to, but to instead make your way through the storm and find calmer waters waiting beyond it.

The real beauty of it is that once the people who look to you for leadership realize that this is the type of leader you are, they will follow you anywhere. Their loyalty, their dedication, their support will be assured. And that, when it comes to building strong brands, isn’t something you can either buy or do without.

So parents, teachers, law enforcement personnel and passers-by, consider this: Next time two little boys decide to brawl, don’t stop them right away. Let them throw a few kicks and punches. Let them sort it out on their own, even if only for a few seconds. What they discover about themselves in those short, precious, terrifying moments could help shape them into formidable leaders someday. I know it sounds pretty weird, but trust me: They need to put themselves through it, black eye, mouthful of blood and all.

Cowards make lousy leaders. Give your kids enough space to learn not to be.

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We had to put our golden retriever to sleep this weekend, our friend of fifteen years, our family’s faithful guardian and companion, and one of the kindest, most loyal and giving souls I have ever met. True to her breed, Sasha was a courageous, tender and selfless until the end.

I was trying to figure out how to give her a worthy send-off here on The BrandBuilder blog, and settled on some of the things she taught me over the years. Or rather, the things I didn’t realize she had taught me until this past week, much of which I spent caring for her, as she could no longer take care of herself. She and I had some long chats, in our own way, and the old girl was much wiser than I gave her credit for.

Are there business lessons in this list? Yes. There are. But all are deeply human lessons at the core. If being human can make a business better, if it can fuel its soul (or even simply give it one), then yes, let these be business lessons. But don’t ever forget that what makes a business truly great isn’t technology or design or a fancy logo. Those are expressions of something deeper. Something more visceral and powerful and true. What makes a business great, what makes it special, worthy of a connection, worthy of trust and loyalty, admiration and respect, even love, always starts with a beating heart, not a beeping cash register. (One is the cause, and the other one of many effects. Don’t lose sight of that distinction. Horse before cart: Soul drives love. Love drives business.)

It’s so easy to lose sight of what’s important in our lives. And this isn’t me being overly sentimental because I just lost my dog. I mean, yes, sure, okay… But there’s also something to this: That sentimentality, that emotion, these things that make us connect with other souls is at the heart of EVERYTHING this blog has been about these last few years: Business, design, marketing, social media, communications, corporate responsibility, best practices… No company can ever be great unless it can tap into the very essence of what makes us want to connect with each other, and no executive or business manager or cashier can ever truly be great at their jobs unless they also tap into the very thing that makes genuine human connections possible. If ever there was a secret to successfully building a brand, a lovebrand, the kind that people will fight for and whose mark they will tattoo on their bodies, it is this. The rest is merely execution.

If you only walk away with one bit of wisdom from this post, let it be this: You cannot build a better business unless you first become a better human being. Everything that strips you of your humanity, of your empathy, of your ability to connect with others is bad for business. It’s bad practice. It is doomed to fail in the end.

As my good friend John Warner noted yesterday, “If more people were as loyal and loving as dogs the world would be a better place.” (source) And he’s right. How do you become a better human being then? Well, that’s up to you, but if you had asked Sasha, she might have given you a few pointers of her own. Granted, she was never a Fortune 500 C.M.O. She didn’t design the iPad. She didn’t invent the internet or write a book. She never presented at a conference. All she did was hang out with me and Chico. We went on car rides. She watched me work. She lived the simple life of a dog, uncluttered by Twitter followers and Hubspot rankings and the drive to publish and present case studies. She was a dog, and so her perspective is a little different from what you may be used to. At any rate, here are twenty-one she and I discussed at length last week. I hope they will be as valuable to you as they now are to me.

Twenty-one things my dog taught me about being a better man:

1. Be true to your own nature. There’s no point in faking it. A golden retriever isn’t a chihuahua or a pug or a greyhound, and for good reason. Being comfortable in your own skin is 90% of the trick to rocking out your life. Not everyone is meant to be Rintintin or a seeing eye dog or an Iditarod racer. It’s okay. Find yourself and embrace your nature. That’s always a great place to start.

2. Be true to the ones you love. Your friends, your family, your tribe, your pack. A life lived for others is a life well-lived. Selfish pursuits aside, ambition often grows hollow when turned inwardly instead of outwardly. It’s one thing to want to be pack leader, but there is just as much value and honor in serving than in leading. When in doubt, see item number one.

3. Never say no to a chance to go on a car ride. When the days grow short, I guarantee you’ll wish you’d have gone on more car rides.

4. Leashes are the enemy. Avoid them at all cost.

5. People are strange. So much potential, yet here they are, doing everything they can to complicate rather than simplify their lives. It’s puzzling.

6. Belly scratches.

7. The end isn’t pretty, but if you can face it with dignity and grace, none of your body’s weaknesses will matter. Your heart, your courage, your spirit is what people will see and remember. This isn’t only applicable in your last days and weeks. It’s applicable every day of your life. Adversity happens. It’s how you deal with it that matters.

8. Forgiveness is easier for dogs than for humans, but humans have opposable thumbs and the ability to speak, so it all balances out in the end.

9. Your bark is your own. No one has one quite like yours. Own it. Love it. Project it.

10. Trust your instincts. They rarely steer you wrong. The feeling in your gut though, that’s probably just something you ate.

11. Just because you’re meant to live on land doesn’t mean you can’t feel at home in water. Play outside the safety zone. Swim in the deep end. Dive in. We’re all designed to do more than the obvious.

12. Play more. The game is irrelevant. Just play. Tip: Exploring is play. Having adventures is play. Finding out what’s behind the next hill is play.

13. Your body growing old doesn’t mean you can’t be a puppy at heart. Actually, the first should have no impact on the latter. If you find that it does, take a step back, regroup, and restart. Always be a puppy at heart.

14. Humans aren’t all bad. But they aren’t all good either. Choose yours wisely.

15. Always keep that 20% wolf in you. If you ever give it up, you’re done. A dog without a little wildness in the blood isn’t a dog. It’s a furry robot. The beauty of a great dog doesn’t lie in its obedience but in its loyalty. Loyalty is a choice. Dogs choose to be dogs and not wolves. That’s what makes them so special.

16. Running full bore across a field in the rain.

17. There are no mysteries. Take cats, for example: Half rat, half badger. Crap in a box. Eat rodents. Where’s the mystery in that? If you look hard enough, you can figure most things out for yourself. The world isn’t as complicated as it sometimes seems.

18. Sometimes, you have to back up your growl with a bite. Go with it. Some people like to test your bark-to-bite ratio. With those “inquisitive” types, a little education goes a long way. As much as it sucks to have to go there, it is sometimes necessary. (It’s what the fangs are for.) Your territory, your space, your safety… They’re worth defending. Make a show of it once, and chances are you’ll never have to teach anyone a lesson again.

19. Being alone is no way to go through life. We’re pack animals. Humans, dogs, same thing. We need others to make all of this worthwhile. As an aside, if we live through others, why not also live for others, even if only a little bit? It isn’t that much of a stretch.

20. When you chase the ball, CHASE the fucking ball. Two reasons: a) It’s a chase. You don’t half-ass a chase. You go all out. It’s what you do. It’s the point. b) You don’t want some other mutt to get to the ball before you and slobber it all up, do you?

21. In the end, you will revisit your adventures, your battles, your chases, your voyages and all the excitement of your life with bemused pride, but it’s the quiet moments with loved ones that your mind will settle on. The comfort of those days when all you did was spend lazy hours with them, your head on their lap, their on yours, taking in the afternoon sun and the hundreds of fleeting stories carried like whispers on the breeze, those are the memories that will stay with you to the end and beyond.

Never give up on your thirst for life, on the beauty subtle moments, and on chasing that ball as hard and fast as your legs and heart will carry you.

Godspeed, Sasha.

Sasha (1995 - 2010) R.I.P.

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I agonized for a few days over what kind of brilliant advice I should share with you on this 1,000th post since the launch of the BrandBuilder blog before finally realizing that no. 1,000 is no different from 999, 1,001 or 356. So no more pondering, no more worrying about writing an epic post (the time for that will come again in due time), and no more waiting around for inspiration to strike. Today, instead of talking about social media, brand management, who does what well and who does what poorly, let’s just talk a little bit about leadership. Corporate leadership, that is.

And instead of doing all the talking, I will let people with a whole lot more experience than me give you some tips about how to become a better leader. Great stuff that transcends the typical leadership quotation mill.

Anne Mulcahy – Former CEO of Xerox

In a crisis, you have the opportunity to move quickly and change a lot – and you have to take advantage of that.

Change doesn’t happen if you don’t work at it. You’ve got to get out there, give people the straight scoop, and get buy-in. It’s not just good-looking presentations; it’s letting people ask the tough questions. It’s almost got to be done one person at a time.

There’s not a lot of room anymore for senior people to be managers. They have to be leaders. I want people to create organizations that get aligned, get passionate, get really inspired about delivering.

Stories exist at every level of the company. Whether it was saving a buck here, or doing something different for customers, everyone has a story. That creates powerful momentum – people sense that they’re able to do good things. It’s much more powerful than the precision or elegance of the strategy.

I communicate good news the same way I do the bad news. I thank people and make sure they feel a sense of recognition for their contribution. But the trick is always to to use the opportunity to talk about what’s next, to pose the next challenges. Where do we want to go? How do we want to build on it?

Margaret Heffernan – Author, The Naked Truth

Nothing kills morale like a staff’s feeling helpless. This often plays itself out when there are rumors of a new strategic shift or a major personnel move, or worse, when the papers are littered with bad news about your company. A big part of boosting morale is about constructing a haven of logic that offers individuals shelter from any storm. At its most basic, leaders have to communicate their awareness of business conditions and place their plans in that context. Each time [a CEO outlines] a future that comes true, he demonstrates his own competence and reinforces trust.

The happiest people aren’t the ones with the most money but those with a sense of purpose – a sense that they are contributing to something bigger than themselves. At least some of this has to derive from work. The purpose of a business, then, must be explicit and go beyond boosting the share price or fulfilling some bland mission statement. People want to believe that they are part of something meaningful. The sense of purpose doesn’t have to be grandiose or revolutionary, merely credible and anchored in values.

Purpose is achieved through goals, and the acid test for any leader is defining the appropriate ones. Too small, and celebrations soon ring hollow. Small goals breed cynicism. But too-big goals produce helplessness. Although it can be temporarily thrilling to rally around a big corporate slogan like “kill the competition,” the reality is that employees can’t do it alone and they can’t do it quickly.

Alignment between corporate goals and personal development has never been more critical. The more unpredictable the outside world, the more urgent the personal quest for self-determination. What employees look for in leadership is a sense that their personal journey and the company journey are part of the same story. When these goals aren’t aligned, employees tend to whine with others, eager to share their sense of anger and injustice, polluting morale. The only way to combat this and get back on track is proper feedback. Give employees the tools to influence their own fate.

Get a life. Keeping morale high is like being on a diet: It requires constant effort and is never over. New ideas, stimuli and motivation come from all around you. It’s the larger life, after all, that gives purpose to the climb.

Alan Deutschman – Senior Writer, Fast Company – writing about how IBM builds new businesses

Look for opportunities that can become profitable [billion-dollar] businesses in five to seven years. You’ll probably find them by talking to customers rather than to brilliant researchers in the labs, who are are looking further ahead.

J. Bruce Harreld – IBM

You want to celebrate failure because you learn something. You need some level of security to say ‘I screwed it up,’ and be comfortable that you won’t be fired.

Marcus Buckingham – Author, Break All The Rules

Turn anxiety into confidence. For a leader, the challenge is that in every society ever studied, the future is unstable, unknown, and therefore potentially dangerous. By far the most effective way to turn fear into confidence is to be clear – to define the future in such vivid terms that we can see where we are headed. Clarity is the antidote to anxiety, and therefore clarity is the preoccupation of the effective leader. If you do nothing else as a leader, be clear.

Effective leaders don’t have to be passionate, charming or brilliant. What they must be is clear – clarity is the essence of great leadership. Show us clearly who we should seek to serve, show us where our core strength lies, show us which score we should focus on and which actions we must take, and we will reward you by working our hearts out to make our better future come true.

See? Told you these folks know what they’re talking about.

Thanks to Fast Company‘s March 2005 issue for providing much of today’s content. (I have quite the collection.)

Cheers.

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You’re always in beta. Always. If you think you aren’t, you’re already falling behind and bleeding relevance.

What does being in Beta mean? It means being in perpetual test mode. It means constantly asking “how could I do this better,” even when this worked just fine. How can I listen better? How could I improve customer service? How can I make my billing process smoother? How could we improve the UI/UX of our websites? How can I engage my user community even better? How could this brochure have been better?

I know what you’re thinking: Poor kid. He’s terminally obsessive-compulsive. 😀 (Actually, I’m just compulsive, not obsessive, but that’s a topic for another day.)

The point is this: The moment you start thinking that you have found the perfect model, the second you start adopting a “let’s not change anything” mentality, you’re screwed. The “don’t fix it if it ain’t broke” saying I hear a lot in the South is may have been pretty good advice a hundred years ago, but it isn’t anymore. Not if you want your company to stay competitive. Not if you want to see your company grow. Not if you want to see chronic improvement in everything you do.

Check out today’s video if you haven’t already. And if it doesn’t launch for you, go watch it here. (Thanks, Viddler!)

Interestingly, the “you’re always in Beta” mindset that I am talking about today seriously reminds me of the mindset athletes and coaches get into when it comes to improving performance. Say you’re currently a 24:00 5K runner, and you want to relive your college glory days by running an 18:00 5K a year from now. How do you do it? Simple: By stressing your system one little bit at a time. By challenging your comfort zone with every run. Going from 24:00 to 23:55, then 23:50, then 23:45 for the same distance, and so on. Turning up the heat and the intensity for a few weeks, then giving your body a chance to adapt. To plateau. And then starting over with a new cycle of stress and adaptation followed by a rest period. During that time, you are constantly testing your boundaries, monitoring success and failure, learning what works and what doesn’t. (And yes, measuring your progress to know what works and what doesn’t.) Pretty basic stuff.

The alternative would be to keep running the same 5K route every day at the exact same speed, in the exact same way. What would happen? Well, you would become pretty good at running a 5K  in 24:00. Comfortable? Sure. But whatever happened to improvement? See where I am going with this?

Okay, now let’s complicate things a little bit:

As a triathlete, training and competing in what essentially amounts to three sports (swimming, cycling and running) adds some pretty substantial layers of complexity. Not only do I have to figure out how to train for three specific sports, but I have to figure out how to combine and integrate all three in a way that doesn’t lead to injury or burnout. I also have to fit all three in my already busy schedule. Then I have to consider how to time my training cycles to coincide with specific races. In addition, I have to incorporate changes in nutrition and hydration based on my workouts, my training mode, outside temperatures, etc. And if I get into my head that I am going to train for a marathon, half Ironman or full-on mac-daddy Ironman, all of these variables take on a level of complexity I can’t even begin to explain in one blog post. How much Gatorade should I drink per hour in 94 degree temperatures at 80% of my maximum heart rate? How many energy gels can I absorb per hour without getting sick to my stomach? What cadence should I adopt to sustain an average speed of 21mph for 112 miles? Only one way to find out: Test it.

And I haven’t even talked about gear. Will the improved aerodynamics gained from dropping my aerobars down 2 millimeters shave 20 seconds off my 40K time? Maybe… but as a result, will my upper body’s new angle offset my hip angle enough to reduce my power output or stress my hip flexors enough that I will start cramping up 5 miles into the run? How will I find out? There’s only one way: Getting out there and testing that theory. It’s clipboard and stopwatch time for the next six weeks.

Should I go with a disc wheel or a deep dish rim for my next race? How will I know which works better for me on a moderately hilly course in 15mph crosswinds? Only one way: I have to go test each wheel configuration on a variety of courses in completely different wind conditions. Then I’ll know what works best in specific course conditions.

Rear-mounted bottle-cages or frame-mounted? Aero helmet or regular helmet? Motion control shoes or racing flats? Test test test test test. You get the picture.

Call it an occupational benefit or a pre-existing condition, but being a triathlete kind of trains you to be in a perpetual Beta mindset. And it isn’t a stretch to jump from the world of competitive endurance sports to the world of business performance. Different application, but same principles and same basic methodology: Ask, test, observe, validate, learn, repeat.

But before you do all this – the testing, the experimentation, the analysis and learning and adaptation – you have to make a choice. You have to pick a camp. You have to decide whether you are satisfied with your business performance as it is today (“good enough” is good enough for you and your customers), or hungry for improvement.

There’s no right or wrong answer here. It doesn’t matter what camp you decide to align yourself with: The one happy with the way things are or the one looking to kick ass a little more each day. What matters is that your decision work for you. But let’s be clear about the impact that your choice will have on your business: Sticking with a “let’s not change anything” mindset will not earn you more customers, increase customer loyalty or generate more sales. Where you are today is exactly where you will be tomorrow. If you’re lucky. Eventually, perhaps not next week or next month or next year, but eventually, this mindset will seal your doom. A Beta mindset, however, will help you uncover ways to innovate, earn more customers, cut costs, increase customer and employee loyalty, improve product design and performance… You name it: Whatever the opportunity to improve, do do things better and smarter, may be, you will systematically uncover it in the same way that Apple, Nike, BMW, Cervelo, HBO, Michael Phelps, IDEO, Lance Armstrong, Comcast and Zappos have.

If you want your company to be best in class, to own a market or an industry, to be the trendsetter, the example to follow, the leader in a category, you must adopt a perpetual Beta mindset. You have to constantly stress your systems and processes. You have to turn every action into a test an look at every activity as an opportunity to experiment.You have to measure, analyze, learn, adapt and repeat the cycle over and over and over again.

Question everything.

Work harder than the next guy to build the best XYZ the world has ever seen, and then find ways to make it even better.

Perfection is a process, not a milestone.

Embrace a state of perpetual Beta.


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