Helping the Chronically Overworked Find Life Balance

Why You Should Care About The Revenue Forecast

Chapter 9: Paint Your Environment: Part 4

As I argued in the last post, if you want the company to do the right thing, make sure you have a set of numbers to back it up. To fully understand why I think this is critical, lets step back for a moment and look at where a revenue forecast come from.  The Cambridge dictionary online defines a revenue forecast as “a calculation of the amount of money that a company will receive from sales during a particular period.”

In a very real sense, a revenue forecast is a prediction of the future, and a forecast can have a very real impact on the day-to-day activities of employees.  It is tempting to think that these numbers are scientifically derived and reliable, but often they come from sticking a finger in the air, and then justified after-the-fact in Excel.

I heard a cautionary tale from “George” the former VP of marketing at a mid-sized biotechnology company about how a bogus forecast helped propagate a disaster.  Research created an elaborate robotic system to streamline the user experience for one of the flagship product lines.  After a few experiments, they pronounced it ready to ship to customers, and did not need to go through a formal development process.

I cringed when I heard the story.  Product development is always needed to make a new technology robust enough to work consistently in customer hands.

But “ready for customers” is exactly what the CEO wanted to hear.  He was a Scorpion, a “visionary” who felt that the technology should sell itself.  The President and CFO were hungry for revenue growth, and via a process that sounds a lot like groupthink, the executive team convinced themselves that “we should be able to make $10M on this product this year.”  Marketing then back calculated the number of units, service contracts, and consumables that would need to be sold to make the forecast.  (As a point of reference, this represented 25% of the company’s projected revenue growth for the year.)  Then when the product ran into development issues, the same executives went on a headhunt to find out where the number came from.

The rest of the company scrambled to fill the $10M revenue hole.  Timelines for other products were accelerated, and employees throughout the organization put in long weeks to “make it happen.”

Bad management?  Sounds like it.  But there was not a rush of people heading for the door.  Inside the asylum, everyone looks sane.  (See this post on stress and loss of perspective for more.)

How far will your company go to make the numbers?  Where do the numbers come from?  If you can’t control the forecast, what can you control?

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What I Learned About Organizational Savvy From My Fraternity

Chapter 9: Paint Your Environment Part 1

My junior year in college, I was rush chairman at my fraternity, which meant I was in charge of recruiting new members.  There was this one guy who came by a few times and impressed some of my brothers with his coolness. Others, like me, thought he was an asshole. We were a small house, and did not turn away people easily.  We also didn’t have any guys who liked to brag about cheating on his girlfriend, and I was not up for letting one in.  This was the dark ages of the 80s, when we used an index card to track each “rushee”.   Every week I would hand out the cards to other brothers, who had the job of inviting them over for dinners or other events.  One of my brothers really wanted to help with rush, but he was terrible on the phone.  I gave him the asshole’s card every week.  And the asshole quietly disappeared.

I can’t exactly say that my choices were the model of honest behavior, but I was living according to my values in an organization that may have chosen another path.  I now realize I was using organizational savvy (a skill I seem to have lost during my ten years in the academic world, and had to rediscover the hard way in the business world.)

Veteran executive Marian Cook  defines organizational savvy as “understanding the professional culture you are in and working with it – instead of against it – to achieve your goals. It is understanding that ‘office politics’ is a reality to be dealt with, not ignored or even looked down upon. Whenever two humans get together, there are ‘politics’ at play, affecting your performance, the perception of your performance, and therefore your pay. It is the portfolio of competencies, approaches, and behaviors used to navigate your career and organization with success and integrity.”[i]

Organizational savvy is a tool, and like any other tool can be used for good or ill.  This chapter will teach you how to use organizational savvy to regain control of your life.

[i] Leadership Skills: Organizational Savvy (Part 1 of 3) By Marian Cook WITI Leadership Retrieved January 7, 2013.


Do You Have What It Takes To Be the Best?

Ultra limited edition Michael Phelps Frosted Flakes by Timothy Moenk via Flickr CC

I always want to be the best.

I also want to have a happy and balanced life.

I’m not sure I can have both.

In fact I know I can’t have both.

Being the best means an inherently unbalanced life.

I was reminded of this yesterday, when I caught one of my favorite Twilight Zone episodes.  Jack Klugman plays Jesse Cardiff,  a man who lives for pool, and laments that he is not considered as good as the late “Fats Brown.”  This being the Twilight Zone, in walks Brown, who offers to play one game if Jesse will bet his life on the outcome.

What I love about the episode is the way it highlights what it takes to become the champion.  At one point Jesse says “I am the best.  Do you know how much of my life I’ve spent playing pool?  Do you know how many nights I slept on this table?  I made a deal with the owner so I could practice after the place closed.  I haven’t been to the movies in years.  I haven’t dated a girl, or read a book because it would take time away from the game.”

Later in the show, Fats offers a different view of being a champion.  “It pains me to see you spend your whole life in this dark, dingy room.  I may not look it, but I’ve made love, swam in the ocean, and had a life where no one had heard of a pool hall. And I’m still the best.”

As a teen, I resonated with the drive to be the best.  I saw being the best as an escape, a way to write my own ticket.  And I did – to Cornell, to MIT, to Stanford, and then to jobs at the hot biotech companies of the day.  What I noticed yesterday was another comparison -Jesse was driven by the need to “show everybody that he could be the best at something.”  All those people who made him feel badly that he wasn’t good at this or wasn’t good at that.  Jesse is adamant that now he is the best at something.  I recognized the insecure overachiever.  As talented as I was, I never felt like it was good enough.  It’s not a happy place to be.  Some of that comes with youth; well at least that has faded to some degree for me.

The price for Jesse was high – yes, he gets the fame while alive.  But in the Twilight Zone world, he takes the place of Fats, cursed to travel to cheap pool joints defending his title.

In the real world, the price of being the best is just as high.  For example, Michael Phelps is the best swimmer in history, and according to many the greatest Olympic athelete of all time.  And what did it take for him to win 8 gold medals in Beijing?  He went “five years without taking a day off” he told Baltimore Magazine.  “That included birthdays, Christmases, Sundays.”  And he needed to eat 12,000 calaries a day to fuel his workouts.

Phelps has incredible gifts – a freakish body with long arms, double jointed knees and feet that straighten 15 degrees more than normal. And he has d what his coach calls an obsessive compulsive streak that kept him in the pool at least 5 hours a day, every day.

That level of work is what it takes to be the best.  Phelps was so good in Beijing that he won a gold medal with broken goggles.

For the London Games, Phelps cut down on his training significantly.  Prior to the games, his coach Bob Bowman explained. “If we look at his preparation the past three or four years in terms of, did he do everything he possibly could do to be a better swimmer? The answer’s no, [but] he’s certainly done enough work to be competitive. Phelps “only” won 4 Gold and 2 Silver medals.  The difference came down to minutia – a little worse on the turns, a little less kick at the finish.  Had he worked those extra days, he may have won an extra gold medal.  Does anyone really care?

Phelps doesn’t seem to care.  He went into London with the attitude that he would enjoy this Olympics, something he was unable to do because of the enormity of trying for 8 Golds.  This time he achieved the elusive balance – superior performance amid a sea of calm.

There is a myth that if you don’t work all the time, you get mediocrity.  It IS a myth.

 Busting Your Corporate Idol will return Monday January 7th

The Connection Between Community, Work, and Happiness

Chapter 8: Build Your Community Part 8

I define a community as a group of people with a common interest who look out for each other.  In his book “Bowling Alone,” Harvard Professor Robert Putnam rigorously documents the decline of community in America. Putnam points to decreasing membership in organizations like the PTA and Shriners, as well as a decrease in the frequency of informal get-togethers like Sunday picnics.

Why is this important? Current research suggests that one of the most important drivers of happiness is community.  (See here for a summary of recent happiness research).   Humans are inherently social creatures; we like to belong and like to interact with other people.  And with less community, there are less opportunities to connect, and therefore less opportunities to generate happiness.

The workplace can look and feel a lot like a community.  We spend most of our waking hours at work.  A good leader will try to pull employees together towards a common purpose, and create a sense of esprit de corps.  And just as a community takes care of it’s members, many companies provide extensive lifestyle benefits to employees, such as on site medical, dental, dry cleaning, and of course the grand daddy of them all, the on-site gym.

Southwest Airlines has made its culture and community a competitive advantage, creating funds to allow employees to help other employees deal with natural disasters, and “culture committees” to plan parties around lifestyle events. (See SWA website.)   Of course Southwest Airlines has something that most other companies don’t – a no layoff policy.

In the next post, I’ll explore whether layoffs disqualify the workplace as a true community.

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Life Lessons From Abraham: The CEO Of a Startup Religion

Chapter 7: Secure Your Identity Part 15

Abraham was raised in ancient Sumeria, a world where the dominant culture was pagan.  Gods were everywhere, from Anu the sky god, to regional gods, to small amulets and magic charms that were a big part of everyday life.  Abraham’s cause was not simply a matter of a single divinity- it was a completely different way of life. And if we look at the number of followers as a scorecard, I think he was onto something.  According to the Big Religion Comparison Chart, there are 14 Million Jews, 2 Billion Christians and 1.3 billion Muslims on the planet, all of whom look at Abraham as the father of monotheism.   For those of us looking to bust  our modern idols, there is a lot we can learn from Abraham.

For Abraham, monotheism was not an abstract, metaphysical question about the number of deities.  Abraham was the CEO of a start up religion, and he was looking to change the world.  He had an unshakable identity and powerful personality that attracted followers.  And like any good startup CEO, he could lay out a vision and make others believe.  By intellectual reasoning, Abraham showed that something created by man should not become the object of worship.  For Abraham, there was one creator who put forth rules of right and wrong that did not change.  This was very different than the pagan world, where right and wrong changed depending on the deity, and is also different than the corporate world, where right and wrong behavior is defined by corporate culture.

As I argued in Chapter 2, the universal values are The Golden Rule tempered by The Rule of Self Preservation.  In the next post, we’ll look at the limitations of Abraham’s identity-based approach to change.

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