Wednesday, May 27, 2009

The Tale of Two Californias

As Dickens said "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times" and the phrase could be applied to California here in April 2009.

The unemployment data released last week touts California at the top of the jobless lists at 11% - worst in the country - and yet it's not a reflection of reality in California because the sad truth is there are two Californias with very different challenges and for one the problem is a lot higher than 11%.

While the Bay Area chugs along at 8.3% and decreasing unemployment, a slowly recovering housing market and companies still competing for engineers, we have sister counties with unemployment at depression levels and higher. In the Great Depression unemployment in the U.S. peaked at 24.9% in 1933. Imperial County today has an unemployment rate of 26.9% closely followed by counties like Merced and Yuba at 18% - you can see the sobering Central Valley stats here and a map of California's unemployment rate by county here.

It's too easy to forget how close the poorest communities are to the hubbub of a tech world where Facebook raises $200M and NEA raises over $2B for it's new fund (although some do predict the death of venture capital as we know it - more on that later). High end wine stores still do well, and you still can't get a table at the Village Pub without a reservation.

But with the California budget in crisis and the Governor proposing to drastically cut California's Family PACT Program, the most vulnerable members of our community are more at risk now than they have been since the Depression. Planned Parenthood Mar Monte (the largest PP affiliate which is based in San Jose and covers many of the poorer counties in the Central Valley) has seen a 15% increase in the number of visits so far this year because so many people have no other health care options. PPMM provides broad health services (yes, only 3% of the services are abortion - a little understood fact) and families are coming in who have never needed the safety net of PPMM free health care before but they have no choice and no access to medical care.

Now, more than ever, is the time to pay attention to your donations and to give to the communities that support the most vulnerable in our society. And while California may seem like the land of milk and honey and Malibu Barbies on 90210 it's the land of tremendous struggle just 100 miles away. When you are approached by a friend to give to the non-profits trying to help (and for some of you it'll be me) please give.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Women need to support women at work

Gender stereotypes already make it hard enough for women in the workplace but in tough times how women treat other women matters even more.

Today women make up 50% of managers in companies, but only 15% of executive officers. It's still rare to find women in any executive positions except HR and it's almost unheard of in technology. There was a period with no women CEOs in the top 150 technology companies before Carol Bartz took over Yahoo - and this for an industry that sells to as many women as men now.

Women in senior management are rare at most companies. Their behavior as leaders is scrutinized and it often feels like a no win - we are either too aggressive (feedback I've had) or too timid - held to standards most men are simply not held to. I know that's not going to change any time soon so as leaders we have suck it up, be ourselves, lead and find and empower other leaders in the organization.

But how women behave towards each other often reflects whether they think other women around them help or hurt their chances for advancement. The New York Times last week wrote about women bullying other women at work - reporting that 40% of bullies in the workplace are women - with all the examples being women bullying other women.

This behavior does not make sense. What other minority would do that to each other? The question is - do you believe being in the minority as a woman is an advantage or a disadvantage?

I've seen the best, and the worst, watching women in engineering companies where they are very much in the minority:

- Women who think that more women in the workplace would be a good thing tend to support other women. They'll actively coach, form support and mentoring groups and recommend other women for projects and advancement. This happens when they themselves are not threatened by female competition.
- Women who like being special in a group, being the exception, will consciously, or unconsciously sabotage other women because they don't want to share attention. They like being different and see other women as competition - professionally or socially.

If you are experiencing sabotage or bullying from other women you can change the culture of the group you are in. One way to do this is to get the women in your organization together to acknowledge that you are a group, you are within the same culture, dealing with same stereotype and subtle discrimination issues. You can bring in a speaker to name the elephant in the room and catalyze the discussion -- bring in a dynamic speaker from the outside or a senior woman from your organization. Talk about how much better the workplace is, and everyone's opportunity is if you help each other develop your careers. Getting the discussion out in the open will raise awareness and a sense of responsibility in most people to help each other - I've seen it work.

Women are also rare in the corporate board room - less than 16% of Fortune 500 board members are women. I sit on two public boards and yes, I am the only woman on the board in both cases. When it comes to the substance of the job this is irrelevant - but when I was invited to a working group of women who sit on public boards I was delighted to meet 25 other women who, like me, are in the minority. We discuss substantive issues about being on public company boards and the changing corporate governance challenges; we don't talk about being women, but even so it is encouraging to look across the room and see so many smart, powerful women navigating the same choppy waters.

Clearly I am not advocating unfairly advancing someone based on gender - promotions need to be earned on merit not matter what. But I am advocating paying attention to how you can help other women in your organization thrive - and putting a stop to sabotage.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Today is Odd Day

Yes we can be a little different in Silicon Valley. Too many nerds. Did you know today is Odd Day? You can read all about Odd Day at the home page of Redwood City teacher Ron Gordon but here's the concept...

"Odd Day is []Thursday, 5/7/9. Three consecutive odd numbers make up the date only six times in a century. This day marks the half-way point in this parade of Odd Days which began with 1/3/5. The previous stretch of six dates like this started with 1/3/1905---13 months after the Wright Brothers' flight."

Only six times a century - makes it a pretty special day - although these would be different days in the UK since there the day is first, then the month, so in England it is 7/5/9 - although by now it's actually tomorrow there.....

We had nachos in the office for everyone for lunch today and one of our engineers proposed that we are celebrating Odd Day.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

How to identify leaders in your company

Challenge is the crucible of leadership and there is no time like the present to look for the leaders in your organization. So what should you look for - and how can you create the environment to bring out the leaders?

There are many books which have been written about leadership in companies - probably thousands - and they run the gamut of styles: developing leaders through process (a favorite with HR teams), mentoring, motivational etc. But in a small company the hunt for leadership is a very practical one. You need people who can step out of the group to make a difference.

All the books and papers on leadership can be boiled down into a handful of critical behaviors to watch for when you challenge your organization:

- Embracing risk. Future leaders have an appetite for risk (see my post on leadership and risk) and see it as an opportunity. An opportunity to make change happen, to have an impact, to make something new happen. The risk can be personal (looking a fool, failing) or it can be for the company (losing a stretch deal, developing a risky product that never works) but it is the risk itself that will stretch the team and the emerging leader is often the person most comfortable with the level of risk. Conservatives need not apply.

- Having followers. The phrase is old and corny - "the definition of a leader is someone other people are following" - but it's so true in a company. Making new and significant change happen, especially in technology, rarely happens through authority. It happens because someone has an idea and motivates with the idea so others follow. When I am looking into my organization for leadership I look for whose ideas are carrying the day, and how is that person communicating and nurturing the ideas to have other people follow them.

- Lead by doing and succeeding. People want to be successful and they will often follow someone who they can observe being successful, someone who gets things done. The motivation is to learn, to be around a winner, to have the fun of being on a winning team. It's almost impossible to be effective as a leader if you are not effective as an individual and many leaders emerge because they are good at what they do and other people want to work with them and for them to learn themselves (although sadly this is not always the case of who gets promoted ...).

- Putting the company first. This is one I often see ambitious people early in their career forget. Especially in politicized companies or organizations where there is a great deal of personal wealth to be made (think company headed into an IPO or an aggressive bank). But as a CEO my interest is always 100% company first. It's the only way to measure success. So when I see someone posture or behave in a political way for their own gain I don't care how good they are, I can't see them as a leader. One of the five values at FirstRain is "Take ownership for the company's success" and I look for which employees have taken on the company's success as their own.

I don't prescribe to any one style of leadership being better than any other. Society often remembers leaders from the Great Man or Hero theory of leadership - like President Obama today - who use intelligence and charisma to lead. But in a company you need more than great men (or women) because you need to find the ability to lead different skills sets and personalities who will respond to different styles of leadership.

But if you are the leader of a company or a team, whether they work for you or they are a team you are leading across your community, you can find your anchors, the people who you can count on to help you get the job done, by looking for these four simple characteristics: embracing risk, having followers, succeeding and putting the company (or your shared goal) first.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Follow the money around Swine Flu

There are two ways you can look at swine flu from a business perspective - first how it could negatively affect the economy if it turns into a pandemic - and then the other side is the money and research trail that will follow the fight against it.

We've added Swine Flu into our popular Eye on the Storm report so you can get most interesting information on the financial impact of the flu selected for you - looking at drug pipelines and approvals, research funding, R&D deal making among the pharma companies, drug delivery systems and what the FDA is saying.

If you are interested in tracking the Economic Crisis, Stimulus and Recovery you can sign up for free - it's our community service to help readers make more sense of the turbulence we are all going through.

Here's today's swine flu section - check the report out here and you can sign up here.

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