Things that do not scale – in business and life

On balance, growing our business requires us to do things that scale. We need processes, infrastructure, and systems that help us deliver value to hundreds, thousands, or even millions at a time. You may not want to over-think scaling as you find product-market fit – but, beyond that, businesses that succeed do a good job with scaling.

The dichotomy here is that our life and careers work the other way around. The more you obsess about scaling your impact, the less you contribute in the rooms you are actually in. The more you attempt to personalize, the less personal you are.

Deciding to not do things that scale means doing fewer things – but doing them in a way that is authentic to us. It means adding our brand of thoughtfulness to the emails we send. It means demonstrating our brand of extraordinary care to the folks we touch on a daily basis. And, it means writing those thank you notes.

Our contribution, and ensuing impact, on people are often determined by our ability to consistently do things that do not scale.

It probably doesn’t need force

There’s an unsaid rule when you are assembling an appliance or a piece of furniture – the right tools and technique work much better than force.

If you’ve tried applying a lot of force to align edges or to ram screws into pre-drilled holes, you’ve experienced this. When force seems to be the only way through, it is likely you need to go back to the manual or find a different tool.

It turns out that solving people problems isn’t all that different. While there is the rare occasion when force is useful, for the most part, it serves as an indicator that you are doing something wrong. Technique in working with people is making the effort to understand those you are seeking to influence and employing a combination of humor, care, systems and thoughtfulness.

When in doubt, choose tools and technique over force.

Interpersonal skills vs. Intrapersonal skills

Job descriptions frequently cite interpersonal skills – or variants like the ability to influence cross-functional stakeholders – as a required or preferred qualification. While intrapersonal skills get the occasional mention (“self starter” or some equivalent), they don’t seem to ever make it up to the list of top 3 skills required.

What are intrapersonal skills and how do they differ from interpersonal skills? While interpersonal skills deal with the communication between two people, intrapersonal skills are about the communication we have with ourselves. They deal with our mindset, our approach to analysis and learning, and our response to situations.

We’ve likely had plenty of training on interpersonal skills. But, when it comes to intrapersonal skills, we are, for the most part, on our own. And, that’s a big miss because it is in our interest to focus first and foremost on our intrapersonal skills.

Interpersonal and intrapersonal skills are analogous to personality and character. There’s a saying that personality opens doors while character keeps doors open. That’s just one way of saying that the best long term indicator of your ability to build trustworthy relationships is your character.

Or, put another way, your interpersonal ability is only as good as your intrapersonal ability in the long run.

Day Traders or Venture Capitalists

We have a unique opportunity in front of us today – to choose between being day traders or venture capitalists. However, the opportunity comes with a twist (doesn’t every opportunity?). Few realize that the opportunity exists and fewer know that the default option is day trading.

Day trading requires us to engage with all the goings on in the day. The nature of the day dictates our mood. We like good weather and good news and generally struggle to find motivation otherwise. We invest in the now and avoid crazy swings. It is the default option and works just fine.

However, a few realize that there’s an alternative. When we play venture capitalist, we look at things differently. Yes, we’re engaged with today but, really, we’re focused on building for a few years from now. We’re on the lookout for opportunities to invest in ideas and people who might building something of value. They key word is might, of course. There are no guarantees. Unlike in day trading, there’s more risk and more volatility. But, there’s also tremendous excitement about possibilities.

So, today, we get to choose if we want to live this day and week as a day trader or venture capitalist. One feels safe and the other feels full of tension, discomfort and risk.

Then again, sometimes avoiding risk is the greatest risk of them all.

We are lent into each other’s keeping

Tom Tunguz had a beautiful post on his excellent blog – “We are lent into each other’s keeping.”

(Cal Fussman, Esquire author and interviewer, and Muhammad Ali must catch a plane, but they are running late.)

Later in his life, Ali suffered from Parkinson’s disease, which slowed him significantly. Fussman is worried about missing the plane, and is trying to hurry them through security.

Just then, a woman pulls a camera from her purse to take a photo with Ali. Ali stops, walks towards her and takes several photographs with her, before continuing on.

When Fussman asks Ali why he did it, Ali replies, “That was likely the only opportunity she would have to take a photograph with me. I wanted to make sure she had the one she wanted.”

Certainly, the experience gave Ali some satisfaction, but as Fussman relates in the interview, the empathy Ali showed impressed him the most.

Fussman confesses in the podcast that he respected and admired Ali more after having met him – something that doesn’t happen with many heroes.

The entire story reminded me of an old friend who often tells me, “We are lent into each other’s keeping.” Our time with each other is borrowed, it’s duration is unknown, and that uncertainty make it precious.

Ali recognizes this uncertainty, and finds a moment to show empathy, understanding and be kind.

Fussman ends the interview with Ali asking him for words of wisdom. When Fussman asks, “How you define evil?”, Ali replies, “Unfriendliness.”

As I’m rushing through my days, trying to make a plane or get to the next meeting, I think about Ali, hobbled by Parkinson’s, the best known celebrity of his generation, dancing through the airport, still taking the time to be kind to a stranger.

We are lent into each other’s keeping.

Something about this story made me choke up for a few seconds. I guess it just resonates beautifully with my experiences and my why.

There is always the opportunity to get caught up in the latest human foible of the day – someone was rude and maybe someone was playing unnecessary politics and work. Life can pass us by if we pay too much attention this stuff.

I am frequently reminded of a line I read from someone on his advice to his 20 year old self. He said – “Be kind, life will roll on with you.”

True. We are indeed lent into each other’s keeping. Thank you, Tom, for a beautiful story.

What they remember

Over the years, I’ve heard many people recount memorable meetings with people they considered great. For some, it was a famous athlete and, for others, it was a favorite author or leader. And, I always find it interesting to observe what they remember.

They rarely recount the big speech or the fantastic performance during the game. Instead, they remember the smallest of details. They talk about how the warmth they experienced when they shook hands or how their hero treated everyone around them with respect. I’ve heard how Bill Clinton made everyone in the room feel special. Rafael Nadal is always gracious and respectful to the folks on the side who hand him towels during the game. And, Indra Nooyi, known to be incredibly smart and tough, can give memorable compliments.

I’ve experienced this myself as well. With folks I consider my heroes, it is always the small things that I remember. The big things are expected.

While we all seek to have impact on the organizations we work for, most of us strive to have an impact on the people we work with. It is part of being human. We like to be liked and appreciated.

And, my biggest lesson from the “what they remember” stories is that, in the long run, the big meeting or presentation today won’t have the impact we think it will. It will all be about the small things. It will be how we chose to work, treat people and approach the day.

So, today, let’s stay engaged, pay attention, and commit to doing the small things with extraordinary love. Then, let’s do that again tomorrow.

For, it is the small things that are the big things.

People who believe in you

Most people who you encounter in life will be indifferent to you. Who you are, where you are going, what you care about, etc., won’t really matter to them.

Then, there will be those who will find creative ways to tell you that you aren’t good enough. And, that, if it wasn’t for them, you would go nowhere.

But, every once in a while, you’ll come across those precious few who actually care. They get you, they think about your well being and really believe in you. Belief is a beautiful thing – you just know it when you see it, you feel it in your veins. They make the effort, try hard to be helpful and show you they care.

Such people rarely come by. So, when they do, keep them close.

And, if possible, as often as possible, be that person yourself.

You attract people by the virtue of who you are

One of the most interesting aspects of going back to school after reading many books on human behavior is that you feel you are in a human laboratory of sorts. For a start, you meet more people in 2 weeks than you’ve probably met in 4 years of professional life. And, as a bonus, you have a very high school-esque atmosphere as everyone is keen to understand who their friends might be.

Since friendship offers incredible insight into human behavior, I thought I’d share my notes on a few observations about friendship –

1. We are the average of the five people we spend most of our time with. Friendships matter. (glad we’ve gotten that out of the way)

2. Schools are one of the best sources of great friendships. While some work environments manage to create strong friendships, it isn’t uncommon to hear people describe their friends either from high school, university or graduate schools. I think friends are one of the education system’s biggest gifts to us.

3. Friendship in our early years is almost entirely a product of proximity. As we grow, it becomes entangled more by choice. And, the entrance of choice means we get to see our own magnetic fields in action.

4. We all have magnetic fields that either attract or repel people. These magnetic fields are almost entirely driven by a combination of who we are (comprising of our values and what drives us) and the strength of our personality. Depending on who you ask, we can either be bloody boring, absurdly cool, too serious, too uptight, too flaky, etc.

5. That brings us to the next important truth – everyone is not going to like you. No, you can never be universally popular. In fact, shooting for popularity is probably a problem in itself.

6. If your magnetic field isn’t getting you the sort of friends you’d like to be surrounded with, you either need to change your friends or change yourself.

7. “Cool” exists in every social group. There is always a certain sub-section that is cooler. This group is the envy of most nerds and geeks. However, in my experience, the cool kids are left behind almost without exception. That’s my way of saying – make sure you pay attention to the nerds and geeks. You might just end up working for them.

8. You can be intentional about friendships. But, you’ll have to learn to do so without trying too hard. All human relationships are two way and the other person has to respond too.

9. Trying too hard is a field-killer. It obscures who you are because you pay too much attention to fit in. Don’t fret – just keep an eye out for like-minded people and you’ll generally do just fine.

10. Some people manage to present different faces to different people. If you’re not skilled enough to play that game, don’t try it.

11. If you aren’t really clear about who you are and what you stand for, don’t worry. It comes through when you start doing work. The work you do is a by-product of who you are and how you approach life.

12. Finding excuses to let yourself and your work shine through are critical as a result. That’s why many friendships build when working on projects. Don’t underestimate the power of extra-curricular activities.

13. As with life, patience is critical. Great relationships often take a while to form. That’s okay. A great personality can help speed up the process but, unless it comes naturally, it is probably not worth the bother. It is character that is going to sustain a relationship. There are few more accurate signs of good character than long-lasting relationships. It is definitely an infinite game.

14. If possible, actively seek folks who have different backgrounds and points of you. This is only possible once you feel relatively secure about who you are and where you come from (hence, communities of expatriates typically cluster). If you feel you are ready for this, give this a shot. While it is guaranteed that people with similar background will have many shared experiences, you will be amazed by the sheer number of like-valued people you find when you venture outside.

15. And, one last thing, be yourself. If you don’t know what that means, work hard to understand who you really are by working to understand what your values are, what drives you, and how you approach life. It is only once you possess a sufficient amount of self awareness will you be happy to be by yourself. Often, it is when we’re perfectly content to go on a journey by ourselves that we find the best group of travel buddies.

Magnets, glue, and iron filings – why groups work and when they fail

My model for any group/tribe of people – a family, a team, a community, or a company – involves magnets, glue, and iron filings. The analogy is not perfect but I do find it very helpful in understanding why groups work and when they fail

The magnet is the leader of the group. And, there generally always is a leader. This is the person who attracts people to his/her magnetic field. Magnets typically do this because they have the ability to articulate a vision for the group or tribe. They manage to stay magnets when they repeatedly demonstrate that they care more for the people within the tribe than themselves, and when they deliver on that vision (a happy family, a high performing team, a responsible company, etc.). The magnet is essentially a “giver” function. It is impossible for a magnet to be a “taker” – such magnets don’t last long. Bully leaders can either keep the illusion for a short while or will have to keep shifting groups as their magnetism wears off over time.

The next component are those who join the group for some personal benefit. I call this bunch “iron filings.” No group would exist without them. These are the folk who make the group a group. These are employees in a company who want a good salary, team members who want the group to succeed so they might go to the next more successful group, friends who want to be in a group that is “cool” or has the most fun. The iron filing is a “taker” function. Your focus, as an iron filing, is to get more than you give.

The final component are the glue. The magnet realizes very quickly that she needs the glue if she wants the group to go somewhere (and the group always has to go somewhere). Iron filings tend to fall off really quickly if they don’t feel taken care of. And, the glue do just that. They are the community builders. They nullify the magnet’s hard decisions, they ensure everyone is taken care of, and they generally make the group a great place to be. Over time, some of them become responsible community managers and ensure the group’s spirit is in good health. They are the ultimate givers and no group can exist without them. A smart magnet knows that it is the glue that makes the group possible. In some ways, the magnet may be the personality (that brings people in) but the glue is the character (that ensures they stay there). There is no limit to the amount of glue around a magnet. Incredible teams or groups of people often just have the magnet and glue.

There are a few implications when you consider this model. I’ll share 3 –
1. Successful operating teams have magnets and glue work really well with each other. The magnet is the CEO or visionary and the glue is the COO or details person. One cannot exist without the other. Successful families have this too – the visionary and the executor make for a wonderful team. In some ways, the strength of a magnet is in attracting and retaining the glue.

2. This also explains why succession planning is very hard in companies. There are very few magnets that are capable of attracting strong magnets to their group. It takes a tremendous amount of security and confidence – in short, extraordinary leaders do that. As a result, top management teams rarely have a good successor in the immediate management team. General Electric famously by-passed their top management team to pick a magnet from the next level. His name was Jack Welch.

3. We play different roles in different situations. We are capable of playing all 3 roles and have probably done so in different groups. However, this is perhaps a nice way to check in about which role we play in which group. If we’re just behaving like iron filings, perhaps we want to consider becoming the glue. And, if we don’t like the idea of being the glue within a specific team or organization, perhaps it is a sign to move to a different group?

Every market/client has problems and every market/client is special

There is a nice consulting truism that serves as a reminder from time to time – every market/client has problems and every market/client is special and, most importantly, no one really understands this (especially not those people sitting in headquarters).

I’ve seen this across clients and across country organizations within the same client. Every country organization says exactly the same thing when starting out on a discussion around change.

What they are really saying is – Take time to listen to and understand us. If we don’t feel listened to, we’re not going to listen to you.

They’re right in part. The listening helps us in understanding the nuances that will enable us to ask the right questions. The basic principles will still work (they are basic principles for a reason) – we just have to customize them to suit the needs of our clients.

But, first, you have to listen to be heard.