Thursday, April 24, 2014

Would you be intimidated being alone in a crowded room?

Imagine you are a successful business professional. You are invited to many events after work to network, create useful contacts and learn about new areas impacting your work. You go to such an event one evening and, as you walk into the room, you quickly scan to see if there is anyone there like you. And event, after event, you are the only one of your kind in the room. There may be 100 people in the room and you are still the only one.


This is the experience of being a female CEO, or I suspect an African American CEO of either gender, in Silicon Valley.

This week I went to an evening event run by one of the top executive recruiting firms on Developing Business in China. I walked into the cocktail reception, scanned the room, and saw no women, not even a waitress. As I sat down for dinner at a table of white men (all charming) the dinner guest to my left asked me "Don't you feel intimidated coming to a dinner like this since you are the only woman?" He noticed, and projected, and predicted intimidation. I just laughed and said "it's the norm for me, so no" - and proceeded to have a delightful evening.

A few months ago I went to a PE (private equity) reception for CEOs to meet the partners and each other (they were developing deal flow). Again I walked into the room of about 100 people and saw no women whatsoever, not even a waitress. Sometimes there will be a young woman on the desk handing out badges (most firms have good looking young women on the front desk), but rarely in the room with the players. That particular evening was a "Monday Night Football" cocktail party - huge screens and speakers, lots of alcohol, and so I worked the room and briskly left. Not my scene.

If you are a white male, can you imagine how you would feel if almost every time you went to a professional event for executives, investors and CEOs (of which you are one) you were the only man in the room. Or the only Caucasian in the room in a room of African Americans. How would you feel? Remember, you're not there for social reasons. You're there to be respected, engaged, treated as a professional equal. Could you?

How many times would you have to be put in that situation for you to become blind to it?

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Why Personal Positioning is Toxic in the Office

Which matters more - how you are personally positioned, or what you get done?


Sometimes popular wisdom would tell you personal positioning truly matters. Who you know, what they think about you, how much "face time" you get, are you networked... but while this strategy may be effective in some large or political companies, it's death in a fast moving, apolitical one.

I define politics in the office as any person, or behavior, that puts their personal interest in front of the company's interest. When you're growing fast, and making a thousand decisions every day, there simply is not room for people's self interest if it's not aligned with the company's. But the learned behaviors, from larger political organizations, still hang around with new employees until we stop them.

Behaviors like obfuscation of the details - let me make broad statements as if I know what I'm talking about to shut you down, but I don't actually have the details to solve the problem. Or CYA - let me tell you why the problem I am bringing to your attention is a result of something that happened before I had the job to solve it. Or the "Well everything's all effed up so I'm the hero for trying to fix it". Or the eye roll when describing someone else's problem. All behaviors designed to position the source as superior and not responsible for whatever problem you are tackling.

But in a rapidly moving company, I want my staff to be responsible. Even if it is effed up, and the fire was burning before you arrived. Personal positioning is just a waste of my time.

A customer is unhappy. Bring me specifics. This happened. I think the issue is A or B. I've formed a small team to get to the bottom of it. We'll tell you if/when you need to speak with the customer.

A release is late. Tell me what and why. This piece of code took longer than we expected to deliver, or that piece is unstable and we need two more weeks to test it. We'll come to you if we need more time or resource to solve it.

To the point, specific, centered on action and resolution.

And blame is simply not helpful. Things go wrong some times and individuals are to blame. But the time for blame (if there is ever a time) is after the problem has been solved and then in a post mortem. Bring the team that failed in a situation together and debug what went wrong - with no blame. That allows you to make sure it doesn't happen again.

I have a friend who, early on in his career, proudly called himself the vice president of personal positioning. He had it down to an art form. He was smart, articulate, good looking and senior management loved him. This served him well for a while. Then he came to work for me and I called him on his BS, repeatedly, until he figured out he was capped until he solved real problems. Because he's smart he stopped it, and is now an SVP at a large enterprise software company.

People who are repeatedly successful, across multiple companies, figure this out. They focus on action. On creating solutions, solving problems, helping others. Despite the number of blogs written that say you should manage your brand, and how you are perceived, the truth is power accumulates to the people who know what to do and how to get it done (See my post about Pfeffer's books on Power if you are not familiar with this concept). Not people with friends. Not people who know how to network. It accumulates to people who know what to do and how to get it done. Period.

So if you find yourself worrying about your personal positioning, yes, you're human, but put it aside and set about solving the problem you're faced with.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Feelin' Sorry for the Ladies

Guest post from Tom Bentley, board director at Rambus, Nanometrics and Cortina, former investment banker, and one who loves to stir it up!

In reaction to the "Ban Bossy" campaign write up in the WSJ:

Sheryl Sandberg must be their worst nightmare.  It's hard enough meeting the expectations for a Superwoman, having a wonderfully successful career, raising a passel of great kids, attending all the extra-curricular events that have blossomed in recent years, managing a wonderful home, and looking your best every day (how much time do you think Sheryl spends getting ready in the morning, compared to Mark Zuckerberg?).  Now they have Sheryl telling them that they're losers if they don't behave exactly as she tells them to.

This gets to pass for science these days: "Over the past 30 years," she (Joyce Benenson, a psychologist) writes, "I have come to believe that boys and girls differ in some of their basic interests and accordingly behave in different ways".  Who knew!?  The good news for women is that the world is moving their way, collaboration is becoming a far more powerful tool for success than competition.  The great success of American business results in substantial part from an evolution of management towards a more collaborative, less hierarchical style – flatter organizations and more empowerment at the group level.  Social media is the phenomenon driving the tech world these days.  Leading business schools have all moved towards group learning and team projects, and away from the traditional individualized classroom teaching.  We could look at this as the feminization of the economy, but then we have Sheryl telling us that girls need to become boys.

Not only has internal hierarchy been breaking down, but businesses behave much less like silos, now depending on lengthy and complex supply chains, collaboration with partners in all sorts of areas, great inventions coming from widely dispersed teams rather than the Einstein in the closet, etc.  Over the years, I watched the traditional autocratic tech founder/CEO's pass from the scene, to be replaced by professional managers whose ability to draw on the talents of the people under them was the overarching key to success.  Women should be rejoicing at this evolution, until Sheryl tells them to stop being afraid of being bossy, and to "lean in" until people get sick of them being so obnoxious.

Disclaimer: I am a victim of my own reality, my daughter is a psychologist, a field dominated by women.  She's married to an econ major who teaches math and coaches men's basketball, i.e., all male.  They have a great life, and I assume that my daughter has no idea who Sheryl Sandberg is.

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