Book Club: The Hard Thing About Hard Things by…

Any management book that urges you to read Dr. Seuss is a winner. I just love metaphors and simple lessons to change the frame through which we look at the world.

There are plenty of books on CEO-ing, none of them so relevant as this one. As a CEO, it’s always great to brainpick other CEO’s and uncover their challenges, only to find out that they are always very similar to mine. This is, as you would expect from a CEO of that caliber: no nonsense, straight forward and directly geared to upping your being a CEO. It’s not a real how-to, it’s a selection of things you stumble upon and a view on how you might tackle them.

Most Memorable Quote: “Sometimes an organisation doesn’t need a solution; it just needs clarity”

I believe that far too often we are trained and groomed to find quick solutions and “fix” things, Ben Horowitz just voice what is most often needed: clarity. And the way in? Genuine curiosity. I notice myself that, when I’m approaching life from a place of curiosity, clarity arises and there is no need for fixing yet another problem. Furthermore, bringing clarity through/from curiosity grows the people around you.

In my bookshelf, it’s on the side of books I will page through again every so often.

#LessonsFromLeaders #LeadingFromWithin #HeartfulLeadership


A State of Organisational Grace

To be in a state of grace is to be absolved of sin.  To repent is to be exonerated, and to atone is to be pardoned.  To err is human, and to forgive is divine.  It is the most revered sacrament because it encourages us to look forward, not backward.

Odd start for a leadership column, right?  Stay with me.

A few months ago, a client shared how she’d badly mishandled a project.  The particulars aren’t important.  She did what we all do: stumble, screw up, drop the ball.  Not because of incompetence or negligence, but because our best efforts don’t always succeed.  To me the disquieting part was that she was still embarrassed and self-conscious.  She still thought her credibility was wounded.  The fact that she carried this weight after three months vouches that both she and her employer engaged in an unwitting conspiracy to create an untenable situation.  She didn’t apologize, they didn’t forgive.

The two most difficult sentences to utter are: “I’m sorry” and “You’re forgiven.”   The former admits fault, whereas the latter discharges it.  Both are hard.  Being sorry means acknowledging our shortcomings.  That’s something we’re loath to do, as it bruises the pride that protects our fragile egos.  Forgiving another is equally threatening because it requires genuine magnanimity, abdicating “l’authorité de la persone”.  When this reciprocal exchange doesn’t occur, a toxic cycle is triggered that leaves us cowed and our employers disappointed.

How do we reach a state of organizational grace?  A state where we aren’t afraid of failing, and our firms aren’t afraid of that either?  A state where license is practiced as well as endorsed?   (My friend, Jerry Harvey, wrote about this in his celebrated book, The Abilene Paradox.  Definitely worth a read.)

For our part, we have to place our precious pride aside.  The problem is that we’re savagely self-protective; an instinctual reaction to a threatening world.  Overcoming the instinct begins with faith. In this context faith is simply the belief in our own competence.  But to be competent is to learn, and to learn is to know what we have to learn, and to know what we have to learn is to own our own weaknesses and transgressions.

We have to quit taking things so personally.  A single mistake doesn’t define our professional identity.  I can’t even count my mistakes.  But that’s all they were, and they were shameful only when I repeated the same ones over and over.  All of us know that none of us is perfect.  In fact, we don’t like perfect people, so why would we want to be one?

But faith in us is not enough.  We must have faith in our firms.  That’s where leadership comes in.  Leaders can create environments where thoughtful failures are embraced.  That’s where culture—even the micro-culture of a unit or department—comes in.  Performance, or lack thereof, is part and parcel the product of culture; ignore it at your peril.  Culture’s a good thing, but if it gets in the way of taking chances without the burden of disappointment, then it should bend or break.

Leaders can also resist building performance metrics exclusively around quantitative metrics.  Such appraisal systems don’t capture reasoned risk, creativity and innovation.  Follow the money; reward it and it gets done, don’t and it doesn’t.  Leaders can craft policy that consents to deviation by not marking those who deviate as deviants.

Participating in this debilitating conspiracy is mutual.  We want to be forgiven, but we can’t get it unless we ask for it.  Our organizations want to forgive us, but they can’t do it unless their leaders understand its importance.  That’s a shame, because if we were released from our penitence, like my client needed to be, we could look forward instead of backward.   A wonderful life is made when we fall without fear because we know we’ll be caught.  That’s when ideas flow.  That’s when performance peaks.  That’s when you and I want to come to work.

There’s an Irish sentiment, to “throw the jute on the burning ground.”  Jute is a heavy reed used for thatching.  To carry it is a burden.  The burning ground is a place where we’re liberated from that burden.  To be in a state of organisational grace means asking for, and being granted, forgiveness.


How to Lead in 2018

The key leadership question of this uncertain era: What can we do to inspire optimism?

This post is dedicated to that sense of hope, sharing leadership tales and insights collected at the Fast Company Innovation Festival, a weeklong gathering of top entrepreneurs, thinkers, creators, and practitioners dedicated to holding business to a higher standard. More than 8,000 attendees (32% men and 68% women; average age of 38; from 60 different countries and 45 states) participated in 200-plus workshops, panels, studio tours, and keynotes.


When Ford CEO Jim Hackett talks about leading the 115-year-old companythat he took over in 2017, he acknowledges the need to speed up its metabolism—to try more new things. It’s one reason he’s endorsed fast prototyping at Ford’s new Greenfield Labs in Palo Alto. If Ford wants to withstand the revolutions of autonomous driving and next-generation engines, Hackett knows, its culture has to move beyond methodical and reliable. But Hackett also isn’t saying what Ford’s precise business model will be after these revolutions play out. And he’s okay with that uncertainty. He’s too impatient to stand still, yet deeply patient about selecting an ultimate course of action.


Someone once told me, “Before you say something in anger, count backward from 100.” Keeping calm is one of the hardest challenges in times of stress. It is also the route to gaining perspective. When Questlove talks about his love of silence—and how it serves as a creative engine for him—he’s definitely onto something. The sound of silence is the sound of someone thinking.


One of my favorite verses from the musical Hamilton is the lead character’s admonition of Aaron Burr early in the play: “If you stand for nothing, what will you fall for?” As leaders and as businesses, we are defined by the positions we take on the most difficult issues. To Starbucks CEO Kevin Johnson, that means pledging to hire 100,000 “opportunity youth.” To soccer star Abby Wambach, that means support for both U.S. patriotism and Colin Kaep­er­nick. As Nike’s Hannah Jones puts it, “A brand that doesn’t stand for something is no longer a brand worth working for.” This is not a moment to be shy.


Government officials may claim to be stewards of our social contract, but other institutions provide their own leadership as well. “Think about the sustainability movement,” says Nike’s Jones. “You fly across the world and you see windmill farms everywhere. It doesn’t matter what the U.S. administration is doing; we are all moving to renewable energy.” From education to gender identity norms, businesses play a central role in advancing global culture. Forward-thinking leaders embrace that responsibility with conviction.


In our tech-filled world of always-on connectivity, augmented reality, and artificial intelligence, direct interaction provides the ultimate competitive advantage. As Ideo’s Fred Dust argues, face-to-face engagement is a dwindling art. Yet it is empathy that unlocks so much capacity and creativity. Whether in a one-on-one situation or a one-to-many forum, listening is an essential skill. As Brandless CEO Tina Sharkey says, “People are craving human interaction. That’s going to move the needle more than any technology you could ever dream up.”


Traditional demarcations of “generations”—what differentiates one age cohort from another—are becoming muddy, as experience takes precedence over age. While seasoned executives still have wisdom to share with young talents—Cecile Richards of Planned Parenthood calls the training of young people “probably the most important mark I hope to leave”—modern mentorship is a two-way street. West Elm’s Doug Guiley admits to leaning on his 12-year-old daughter for perspective on his brand. He’s hardly alone in appreciating the fresh eyes and intuition of digital natives.


Even as businesses work to project confidence in a competitive world, we all have to get comfortable with a higher-than-usual degree of messiness if we want to iterate at the pace of global change. “We can’t think about being perfect, we just have to keep moving forward,” says Dell Technologies’ Elizabeth Gore. Whether the topic is bitcoin or AI, we have to accept that our knowledge is incomplete, that lifelong learning is required. Actor Kate Hudson, who cofounded athleisure brand Fabletics, groans at the prospect of robots invading the retail experience—yet she acknowledges that her company will inevitably need to reckon with them.


Diversity is not just a social issue; it is a business requirement. Having “a lot of different people in the room,” says Morgan Stanley’s Carla Harris, unlocks broader ideas and opportunities. What’s more, says Professor Michael Kimmel, diversity must be aligned with inclusion, breaking down silos and freeing voices. Whether it’s TV writer Lena Waithe discussing her emotional, Emmy-winning coming-out episode of Master of None, or drag queens Sasha Velour, Milk, and BibleGirl sparking dialogue around how we talk about gender with our kids, uncomfortable topics help us all to grow.


Millennials “are getting into positions of leadership faster than we did,” says Morgan Stanley’s Harris. “That is going to cause companies that have been around a long time to change.” A parallel transformation is under way in the consumer marketplace. Sundial’s Bonin Bough uses the term “promiscuous” to describe consumers, not in a derogatory sense, but to underscore how fluid our relationships with products and brands—and employers—have become. That sets the bar higher for everyone, to be more consistent, more responsive, more essential. Yesterday’s achievements just don’t hold the same weight; today’s best practices are tomorrow’s table stakes.


To hear Kimbal Musk and Dan Barber argue about the future of food is like glimpsing two parallel visions of the future. Will we grow produce in vertical farms within cities, as Musk would have it? Or will we return to family farming that balances ecology, sustainability, and health, as Barber prefers? Neither course would be considered likely by most analysts, and yet that skepticism bothers the two of them not at all. The fact that their visions are difficult to execute is part of what drives them. They take nothing for granted—and they put everything they have into remaking this vital sector. In the process, they open the door to a better way for all of us.

(originally written by Robert Safian and published on FastCompany on Jan 10, 2018)