Helping the Chronically Overworked Find Life Balance

Beware the Visionary in “Silicon Valley”

In the new HBO show Silicon Valley, Mike Judge sets his sights on, you guessed it, Silicon Valley. Judge is a comedic genius at nailing and exaggerating the small details. Who can forget “Is this best for the company?” from Office Space. In fact, its cousin “You Need to do What is Best For the Company” helped me recognize my corporate idolatry, and changed my life my life for the better. So it was with great excitement that I watched Silicon Valley. The show is about some nerds in a startup that suddenly gets hot. It started slowly, with a lavish party to celebrate someone selling their company for $100 million. Kid Rock performs, and the new millionaire toasts changing the world through better software hierarchy. Sounds like the valley I know. My favorite characters where the two visionaries who get in a bidding war for Richard’s super hot algorithm. Gavin Belson runs a company called Hooli, and at one point is asking his spiritual advisor why programmers always travel in clumps of five? Peter Gregory, a venture capitalist, gives a teary-eyed TED talk explaining why people should skip college and just go to work. HBO has put the show on YouTube for free. Ever work for a visionary? I worked in two companies run by

visionaries. In my first company, the president talked every Friday afternoon, and I was inspired. I loved the Kool-Aid. I’ll say this – he was genuine, and has a track record of founding companies that really have changed the world of healthcare. It was quite a shock for me when he left. It wasn’t soon before I thought this was a good thing, to let us get past vision and on to execution. Well, let’s just say that good execution cannot save a flawed business plan. But that didn’t stop those of us in the trenches from working like crazy through the never ending reorgs and new strategies. In my second company, we also had a visionary. I just didn’t realize it because he rarely spoke to us. It wasn’t until I had been there for five years that I realized that his vision began and ended with the widget he invented. Software, usability, robustness were not perceived as valuable. The company has super highs, which led to super lows as new technology came about to displace what they stubbornly stuck to. We wouldn’t have successful entrepreneurs if they were not visionaries, people who can see the world as it could be. But too often, the vision comes at a high cost to the people asked to carry it out. After all, the destination does not come with a map on how to get there. What do you think? Would you choose to work for a visionary? You might also like this post about a visionary CEO who was a nightmare to work for

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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When Stress Goes Up, Perspective Goes Down

Chapter 6:  Corporate Culture -The Invisible Hand of the Company Part 6

In the last post, Harry T. Lobo, the high integrity executive we met in Chapter 4 who was demoted after a year as COO, even though from an objective standpoint the company met an aggressive set of revenue and product launch targets.   When Harry described himself as exhausted, I asked if the CEO pressured him by calling him at home.

No, he said “the pressure more subtle and psychological, the ‘you’re not really up to it’ sort of thing.  Harry described feeling “bruised and battered,” and at times questioning his own competence.

“It’s not as if I’m sitting around not thinking about this day in and day out.  If it’s still not good enough how the hell can I possibly improve? How can I be getting this wrong with all the work I’m putting in?  But then with me the grit and determination comes in, and I say ‘I’m not going to be defeated by this.  How CAN I address some of the issues being raised here?’  It means either going back to what you were doing with renewed confidence to push it a bit harder, faster, etc.  Or you could say, ok, I’m doing something wrong here.”

In my opinion, those very qualities that made Harry an effective CEO in his next position – loyalty, tenacity, self confidence – worked against him in this situation.  Sometimes, continuing to fight is not the right answer.  In hindsight, Harry understands that the CEO’s expectation of 15% growth because “the technology was so great” was not rational.  But at the time, when he was in the thick of it, just wasn’t possible to take that longer perspective.

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Understanding the Impact of a Hockey Stick Culture

Chapter 6:  Corporate Culture -The Invisible Hand of the Company Part 5

In the last post, Harry T. Wolf explained why he could not change the culture of Goldman Sachs if he became CEO.  And, we saw how Harry went about changing a “negative, finger pointing, aggressive culture.” It took Harry years to make changes, and he had the support of the board to make it happen.

Prior to his current (and second) stint as CEO, Harry was the Chief Operating Officer (COO) of a technology company in Silicon Valley I’ll call “ScorpCo*”.  During Harry’s first year, the company launched a complete upgrade to its platform – software, hardware, peripherals and third party components.  “I am intensely proud of what the organization achieved during that year.  [We delivered] it all, and had successful sales.  In most companies, you get paid it big bonus for that.  It didn’t work that way at Scorpco.”  Wall Street rewarded the company for making its numbers.  Harry was demoted.

The year was difficult – Harry had to defend many decisions publically that he did not agree with.  “I’m a firm believer that if you’re part of a management team that by whatever mechanism decides on a course of action, it’s your duty to carry it out with absolutely the best grace you can. I have always tried to take ownership of that decision, rather than place it as a third party decision.”  Harry had a philosophy of long term objectives, but the company was perpetually focused on the short term – “60% of revenue came in last 48 hrs [of the quarter.]**  It’s a crazy way to run a business.”   According to Harry “burnout was high” among employees, and he felt “sheer exhaustion, both physical and emotional.”

It doesn’t have to be that way, and Harry’s life got much better after he left the company.  The reason why he left surprised me.

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*ScorpCo is a fictitious name I picked because the CEO is a Scorpion.  This post from Chapter 4 gives an example of working for a Scorpion

** A hockey stick culture like this will eventually exhaust everyone both in and out of sales.

How Do Scorpions, Foxes, and Wolves At Work Relate To Idolatry?

Chapter 4: Who To Trust At Work Part 17

The chapter primarily describes a way to categorize people into Scorpions, Foxes, and Wolves to help you determine another persons motivations and by proxy their values.

Motivated by Strength Weakness Suggested Approach
Scorpion Strict set of ideas Execution & vision Inflexible, polarizing Avoid or exit situation
Fox Self advancement Talking, motivating Poor execution Force them to do more
Wolf Getting it done for self, company, ideas Execution, relationships Too trusting Cooperate, partner

So what does all this have to do with idolatry?  As a reminder, I’ve defined corporate idolatry as the adoption of a value system that puts the company ahead of all else, including your family and your own well being.  And as we saw in Chapter 2, idolatry is defined by actions that do not put people first, and is something one can adopt for personal gain or by mistake.  So really, the SFW system is something to help you determine the degree to which a colleague is following people-first values, and if they are not, trusting them could lead to an increased risk of corporate idolatry.

Lets review some of the stories – Vijay early in his career was misled by a scorpion to submit an incorrect method for tracking inventory, which eventually cost him his job. Had Vijay recognized that it was a Scorpion was making the request, he would have been much less likely to comply and could have avoided the issue.  Plus, Vijay mistakenly thought the company had a value system that would reward people for doing the right thing, when in fact it kept the dishonest person.

We met Liz and Jack who did not recognize the spoor of a Fox, which had negative career consequences, and Harry who did identify a fox and proactively removed him from the organization.  Of course understanding the values of the people you work with is only part of the issue.  In the next post, we’ll meet Jill, someone who masters a fox but remains in a difficult situation.

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