More posts on leadership can be found here.

I'm going to venture an estimate. I'm thinking that I've wasted somewhere around 75% of my employers' time on average during my career. My entry-level jobs were not so bad. Working the phones meant that I was actually doing something, albeit low-value, most of the day. But as I progressed from task-taker, to individual contributor, to positions of influence and leadership, the amount of my time wasted increased to include, well, most of it.

"Matt, you're telling the world that you're a drain on your employers!" No, I'm not. I've always delivered value many times greater than the cost of my employment. What I'm saying is that I've had to do it in about 25% of the time allotted. The other 75% of my time went to things that were not just unproductive, they were disproductive. They were worse than doing nothing because they caused stress, wasted time and money, and impacted worthwhile activities. Here are some of those things that caused disproductivity:

Spinning up disproductive projects. I'd say that, on average, four out of five IT projects that have hit my radar have had no potential to be completed. Some reasons for this are:

  • They were knee-jerk, "Yes" reactions to an executive whim.
  • They were committed to before costs and duration were understood.
  • They were legitimate projects, but they didn't survive subsequent waves of prioritization.
  • They seemed important at the time, but the stakeholders lost interest.

My solution? In recent years I've gained the ability to foresee which projects will actually go to successful completion (with almost 100% accuracy). I've made a practice of killing disproductive projects as quickly as possible. Doing so has reduced my disproductivity a fair amount. When confronted with a new project, I ask qualifying questions like:

  • Who actually wants this project?
  • When they find out the cost, will they still fund it?
  • Will it survive resource reallocation for acquisitions, new sites, new product launches, management swaps, bad earnings reports, etc.?
  • Do we have the support, the funding, and the ability to make the project a win, assuming that we complete it?

If I don't like the answers to these questions, I apply a choke hold, poison, or starvation to the project as aggressively as I can. It works.

Attending disproductive meetings. Everyone knows this, but nobody does anything about it. Disproductive meetings are meetings where (a) too many people are invited, (b) the agenda is weak or null, and (c) the follow-up expectations are unclear.  These meetings are disproductive because:

  • They distract people from otherwise valuable work.
  • They frustrate people.
  • They cost a lot of money and don't provide much benefit.

My solution? I love Tim Ferriss's advice in the 4-Hour Workweek. Among my favorites is asking  the organizer what he needs from you in advance so that you can give it to them via email and skip the meeting. Usually they don't know what they need. They plan to let everyone do their thinking for them in the meeting. If the meeting doesn't have a clear agenda, ask for one or don't attend. Also, don't attend the whole meeting. Ask if you can get your stuff out of the way first and be dismissed because you've got "another commitment."

Disproductive email. I noticed this story about Atos banning email. I don't think that email should be banned, but I agree that people should use the most effective means of communication available. Email is generally ineffective and often disproductive. People use email incorrectly in at least the following ways:

  • They use it like IM.
  • They CC way too many people.
  • They don't drop people from distribution once they're not needed.
  • They use it as a data archive.
  • They turn on the inbox alert to distract them every time they get a new, useless email.
  • They use it to say things that they would not normally say.

I don't have any of these problems when I use LinkedIn, Facebook, Skype, or Blogger. They have rough email capabilities, but they don't get abused. Moreover, they never involve large groups of disinterested parties.

My solution?
  1. Don't send email.
  2. If you do send email, avoid CC.
  3. Turn off your inbox notification.
  4. Create aggressive filters. Filter sources, people, subjects, and anything else that you don't really need to see. Yeah, you might miss something important, but they'll call back, and you'll avoid wasting your time.

Reading management's minds. Leaders are supposed to set direction. In most cases, IT management fails to do this. They flounder, they react, they panic, and they drag everyone else along with them. It's impossible to focus on important or complex work when management is driven by urgency.

My solution? Determine the priorities for myself and the people I lead. (See the qualifying questions under "Spinning up disproductive projects" earlier in this post.) When management panics and wants to change priorities, buffer it as much as possible until the questions above are answered. Don't let it impact everyone else until you know whether or not it's important.

Usually management doesn't know why they're panicking. In a few days the dust will settle and they'll be glad that someone held the course.

Things that are not disproductive. Here are just a few examples of things that employers should value over the aforementioned disproductive activities, but don't for some reason:

Chatting with a coworker in the hallway usually is not disproductive. It is a frequent source of innovation and idea generation.

Training is not disproductive. If you are not training your employees because your volume of disproductive work won't permit it, your organization will never be great.

Reading is not disproductive. Reading on the job should be mandatory. Employees should be able to expense any book on the condition that after they read it they share what they have learned with the team.

Brainstorming and whiteboarding sessions are not disproductive. They lead to great ideas and they encourage people to share information that is highly relevant. If you're people are too busy doing disproductive work to think, tinker, and experiment, you will never be great.

Working from home is not disproductive. I did it for a long time. My productivity increased tremendously, as has the productivity of others who have done the same. How?

  • Commute time is recuperated.
  • There are fewer interruptions.
  • There is no need to look busy when between important tasks.
  • Personal needs (laundry, phone calls, etc.) can be intermingled here and there, freeing up time after 5pm for the employee to keep working on important stuff.
  • Sleep and diet improve.

Complaining is not necessarily productive, but it isn't necessarily disproductive, either. It is an indicator that something needs to change, even if it's the complainers. Letting things fester is disproductive.

I would love to see a company wage an aggressive war on sanctioned disproductivity. In a business climate where most companies are still grovelling for marginal efficiency gains, why allow this stuff to continue?

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Trust--THE Critical Leadership Attribute

Quote: "There’s an expectation that you can work anywhere and be highly productive and engaged."

This is from an article about a new Plantronics office. They designed an office to be just unappealing enough that people would prefer to work from home. Never mind that they'll save some money, or that this is forward-thinking. Consider the implication: their trust level is so high that they enshrine it in architectural plans.

I've written a few articles about leadership traits. (See 9 Reasons Control Is Bad and 5 Great Leadership Tendencies That I've Actually Seen.) One of the common themes is trust. I'm now going to explain why trust is THE leadership attribute.

First, trust is the source of your power as a leader. Leaders derive authority from the people who appoint them, but their power comes from being followed. If people refuse to follow you, you are powerless to lead them. True, you can coerce people. That's a kind of power, but dragging people behind you in chains is not the same as leading them. To the extent that you sew fear you will not harvest inclination, initiative, or ingenuity. If you're bad enough, your subordinates will start plotting either their own exit or your demise.

To lead and be followed, a relationship of trust must exist. Someone has to extend and engender trust first. It must be the leader. (In fact, whoever extends that trust first is the leader, whether it's the boss or not.) Extending and engendering trust involves convincing followers of three things:
  • You can and will do what needs to be done as a leader.
  • Your primary concern is their personal success.
  • You trust them to fulfill the responsibilities that you give them.
If you can't do these three things, you have to fall back on some degree of coercion.

How do locate your position on the leadership-coercion scale? One way is to look at your rules. What is the fundamental function of a rule? To shore up a lack of trust! (I'm not talking about an immutable law, like "Don't touch the stove or you'll get burned." I'm talking about a rule that you make to get the results that you want.)

Rules reflect an assumption that people are not inclined to do what is right or best. When you make a rule, you are implying a lack of trust. Moreover, if you make a rule, there must be penalty, whether implicit or explicit. Otherwise the rule has no effect. Threatening penalties is coercion, not leadership.

For example, "No Running!" is a coercive way of saying, "Running is dangerous and may result in injuries." The natural penalty for running is the potential for an injury, but the coercive rule has an arbitrary penalty, namely being kicked out of the pool area. If you tell your people, in effect, "No Running!" you force them all to live under a threat, even if they're disinclined to run in the first place. What might you forego as a result? Creative new ways to make running safe, new surfaces that prevent injuries for people who run, etc.

How do you start to trust more? Begin by questioning your rules. A story will illustrate:

Once I was tasked with creating a Suggestion Box for an IT department. When it was done, we had a stakeholder meeting to review it and to craft a welcome email to all of the IT personnel. The first suggestion made was this: "We need to tell them that the suggestion box is for constructive feedback, not for complaining." Everyone agreed, except me. I asked why we needed that statement. "Do we have reason to believe that people will use it to complain? Will we still get frank feedback if we start with a rule that assumes the worst? Do we want real feedback, or just positive feedback?" We all agreed to forego that statement, as well as several additional rules that, for some reason, seemed intuitively necessary to several people.  (As it turns out, feedback to the Suggestion Box was professional and constructive.)

Another story involved a team that was complaining about senior management frequently. Then something happened. Someone on the team was blamed for a major incident that really wasn't his fault. Everybody knew it, but he was about to take a hard fall for it anyway. The damage to morale would have been irreparable. At that time, a senior director stepped in. He called a meeting with the team and forcefully apologized for what was happening, ascribing all of the accountability to himself, and swearing that this sort of thing would never happen again. He then scheduled a series of meetings to just listen to the team. Almost overnight, the trust that he created increased his power to lead the team several fold. Rather than minimally complying, people were actively trying to support him and going out of their way to praise him behind his back.

He build relationships and harnessed their power. Relationships are based in trust, and thus inspire our best action. They foster respect, admiration, and camaraderie. Rules foster resentment, indifference, and fear.

If you genuinely trust your people and you are sincerely inclined to their welfare, your only limit is the upper bound of their best synergistic output, which you have the power to help improve! If you don't trust them, though, you are restricted to whatever you can force them to produce. This is why, whether your a senior director, a parent, or even an individual contributor, trust is THE critical leadership attribute.


9 Reasons Control Is Bad

"Fifteen calls in the queue holding four minutes!" He would belt that out every ninety seconds or so. He was my manager at my first IT job. My job was helping customers. His job was reminding me. Never mind that my customer service rating was perfect for six months. My average call length was above threshold by a few seconds. Whatever-his-name-was kept reminding me. I left, doubled my salary, and launched my career. He probably hired someone who was better at following directions and wasn't so worked up about "happy customers."

For years I swore I would never get into management. Every new boss I encountered only bolstered my resolve. Management, including senior management, seemed to be about enforcing mediocrity. They did things like:

  • noticing what time people showed up to work
  • pouring over reports looking for potential 0.5% improvements
  • cracking the whip to make sure the hamsters run faster
  • pretending to be SMEs when lecturing actual SMEs

I did what any good engineer learns to do: I got important work done in spite of them. I built valuable relationships with business units. I avoided meetings, ignored pointless forms and procedures, and generally was a prima donna.

Well something happened. I went to work for Dan Case. (I talk more about Dan here.) Working for a leader made many things clear and forever altered the trajectory of my career. I've spent the ensuing time pondering and studying what makes great leaders, and in the process I've learned much about what makes bad managers. The bottom line is control. Leaders lead because they have followers. Managers control because they don't.

Here are seven reasons why control is bad for business:

1. Coercion versus inspiration. When you control your employees, you employ some degree of coercion. Coercion breeds fear. People who are afraid of you will not be inspired by you. They won't even be inspired in spite of you for very long. If you have to coerce people, either you have hired the wrong people or you are the wrong person.

2. Compliance versus excellence. To control your employees, you have to enforce arbitrary standards. Most employees will respond with compliance, not excellence. Excellence involves converting the unique skills, abilities, and passions of your employees into valuable contributions. In many cases these contributions cannot be measured by your standard. Employees who try to excel will either get into trouble or find their way out of your department.

3. Subservience over ownership. When you mandate someone's output in any fine degree, you strip them of ownership. Their job goes from challenging and engaging to perfunctory and uninteresting. You lose their innovative and creative potential as a result.

4. Conformity over spontaneity and intuition. When the "right way" is set in stone, a feedback loop is erected. People will focus on "doing it right." "Aha!" moments will go unharvested because there is no benefit, and perhaps some risk, in pursuing them.

5. Statistics versus value. I once met with a CFO who was unhappy. He had lost money and IT was arguably responsible. We showed him a network SLA report with 4 nines. He said, "Bull. You're lucky if you have 80% uptime." Of course that statement is absurd. So what?. You can't prove to the company that they like you using charts. Attention CIOs: you don't need SLA reports. There is no such thing as statistical happiness. You need one question in a management survey:

"How would you feel if IT management was replaced and why?"

6. More versus better. If you are controlling people and you need improvement, you ask for more. More hours, more tickets closed, more calls handled, more comments written--just more. That is different from better. Better means that people, processes, and output are continuously improving. Try calling USAA sometime to see what I mean.

7. Satisfaction vs delight. The result of controlling always seems to be a satisfaction survey of some kind. Designed by IT, these surveys are rarely as meaningful as water cooler talk. Even more rare is the survey that is interpreted correctly and acted on properly. Try asking questions that use superlatives. Stop giving five options, and switch to yes/no, like this:

"Are you amazed at how easily your iPad works on the company network? [yes] [no]"

8. Tactical versus strategic. Managers use the word "strategy" a lot to describe tactical things. Control is tactical. Control has nothing to do with envisioning the future, setting direction, or getting the very best out of your people. Tactical work is for managers. Leaders focus on strategy and evangelism. Their tactical work consists of clearing hurdles and facilitating the work that their people need to do.

9. Rules versus relationships. People who control make rules. Rules dictate how people will behave. They limit and constrain our interaction, our mutual understanding, and our sharing of knowledge. Relationships, on the other hand, do just the opposite. Even if you're a controlling manager type who has a rule for everything, you still go to conventions in hopes of networking--yes, that's right--building relationships that will help accomplish what you want. You do the same thing in any number of social settings. Why is it that as soon as you're in charge of something you torch relationships and start making rules?

At the end of the day, letting go of control means leveraging trust. You can lead when your people (a) believe that you can and will do what needs to be done, and when (b) they know that you believe the same about them. If those two things are missing, you only have control left.

So, do you simply stop telling people what needs to be done? Not exactly, although if you do they'll figure it out. Setting direction, though, is what people look to leaders for. Thresholds are beneficial for some people. Some people need to learn how to stop being supervised. When such guidance is offered as a means of cultivation it is empowering, unlike the stifling influence of control.

Take a minute to ponder and question. Are you comfortable letting go of control? Do you trust your people to do what needs to be done? Do you believe that they trust you?


Strategic Plan vs. Aggregate Tactical Plan

"Matt, we need your input into the 3-year strategic plan." I was a network security engineer. I configured firewalls and tried to stop intruders. The question didn't make any sense to me. "Could you please tell me what you mean by that?"

"The CIO is putting his 3-year strategic plan together. We need to know what projects you think we'll need to do over the next 3 years."

"What will you do with that?"

"We'll roll it up with everyone else's input and turn it into a strategic plan."

"So let me make sure I understand: you're going to take my ideas about security projects that we might need, add in other peoples ideas about projects for their teams, and then the CIO will use that to make the strategic plan?"

"Yeah. We need it today."

If you aren't laughing yet, you shouldn't be reading this post. Unless you're wincing. That counts.

Well, I began using the term "Aggregate Tactical Plan" on that day. For the rest of the time I worked there, whenever someone mentioned the "Strategic Plan" I would say, "You mean our Aggregate Tactical Plan?" They never liked my name for the plan.

When tactical thinkers get into leadership positions, they don't suddenly start thinking strategically. They start using words associated with strategic thinking, like "3-year Strategic Plan." They say things like, "What's our strategy for getting the phone system upgraded by November?" But they never actually think in terms of, or portray, strategy.

Strategy is the result of deep consideration and pondering. For a tactical person to arrive at strategy is possible, but it involves asking "why" a lot. "Why should we do this or that" can lead to a somewhat bigger view of what needs to be done. Continually pushing one's thoughts up that hierarchy of actions eventually leads to the ability to think about vision and direction. Eventually one can resist the urge to plunge into battle details and focus on the war.

IT might be the worst at this. IT has some deep thinkers (and not all in management) who understand strategy and don't get recognized for it. Then there is the rest of IT who is either incapable of or disinclined toward strategy.

So for those of you who are going be promoted to IT Management and put your engineers in intellectual harm's way, here are some ideas to consider when you have to craft a strategic plan.

Highest-Level Strategy

This is where you define your overall direction or your ultimate desired outcome.

Q: What do we produce?
A: Delighted Clients. [See Steve Denning's article.]
  • Engineers who can turn out good products faster.
  • Salespeople who can sell solutions more easily.
  • Executives who can execute on strategic goals.

By the way, if your focus is on how you're going to report on SLAs so that you can prove that you're doing your job, you are losing. All you have to do is ask the employees a simple question: "Would you be sad to see IT management replaced?" Most SLAs are B.S. and everyone knows it. I've never worked at a company where IT at some level didn't rig the metrics or the reporting.

(Also, notice that I asked a"what" question. You should have already answered "Why?" Visit Simon Sinek for more.)

Mid-Level Strategic Talking Points

Here's where you flesh out at a high level what you're strategy means operationally. Try asking questions.

A: By enabling and facilitating.
  • Clear roadblocks.
  • Mask corporate turmoil.
  • Provide clarity and prioritization.
  • Minimize fire drills.
  • Resolve concerns and be transparent.
  • Focus on relationships over rules.
  • Allow employees to focus on delighting the client.
Q: How will we manage?
A: We will expend 20% effort to get 80% results on things like:
  • Measuring
  • Documenting
  • Policy creation and maintenance
  • Reporting
  • Compliance (with obvious exceptions)
  • Forms
  • Meetings
Q: How will we communicate?
A: We will communicate transparently.
  • Frankly
  • With full disclosure (except where prohibited)
  • Promptly
  • Often
  • Unambiguously
Q: What will we reward?
A: We will overtly reward innovation, creativity, and the extra mile.
  • Rely on our experts; don't dictate to them.
  • Foster cross-team collaboration and synergy.
  • Provide time, incentives, and recognition for valuable behavior
Q: What kind of team will we build?
A: Fully engaged and leveraged.
  • horizontal, cross-discipline integration
  • natural collaboration
  • spontaneous and assigned mentoring
  • constant personnel development and promotion
Q: What will our systems and applications look like?
A: Primary features: elegance and simplicity.
  • Simplify processes and minimize rules.
  • Encourage risk taking and judgment calls within thresholds.
  • Reduce system and configuration complexity.
  • Make things reproducible, intuitive, and intrinsically documented.

If this list makes you want to define forms, meetings, policies, or org charts, you're thinking tactically. If it gives you a vision of a team that functions with enthusiasm an generates high-volume, high-quality output, you're on target.

Of course, questions like these lead to action plans. Action plans bridge the gap between strategic and tactical thinking. The more detailed they are, the more tactical they are. You need action plans.

However, a list of projects that you'll execute on, especially if it was handed to you by the business units, is not a strategic plan. It's a project list. It's the tactical outcome of your strategic goal to delight your clients.

Try to learn to think about the big picture, or at least the medium-sized picture. If your approach to building and running your organization is overly tactical, you will end up spending too much time tweaking minutia and minimizing the ability of your people to do great things for you.


5 Great Leadership Tendencies That I've Actually Seen

"People always talk about the difference between management and leadership. I don't buy into that whole idea." -Tom Rabaut, CEO of United Defense and a man widely regarded as a manager.

I used to work for a small bureaucracy that was bought by a big bureaucracy. We went from 5,000 United Defense employees to 45,000 at BAE Systems. The entire management structure started scrambling to figure out how to get ahead in the new company. For what seemed like months everyone would pull out the org chart at every meeting and inform their underlings about how things were developing. They'd throw out names and titles, talk about meetings they'd been in, and in general provide no information of any value to people responsible for producing results.

In the end, the people with the best political skills moved up. By and large they were the least competent people. They were type that lobbied to be put in charge of important work, but then seemed to get themselves reassigned before anyone figured out how badly they had managed the actual execution. People with abject failures on multi-million dollar projects moved up the ladder, in some cases by several rungs.

Well, when I couldn't stand the stench anymore, I left and went to a white-hot Silicon Valley company. Fate smiled on me, and I ended up working for Dan Case. Dan had the most successful team you or I have ever seen. Dan had reached the holy grail of management: a globally-distributed, multi-cultural team that functioned like one person. He had the kind of team that you read about in college text books, but that nobody really believes can be built. He did it without ever managing anything. Dan led his team.

Here are the top 5 leadership tendencies that I learned from Dan and a few other leaders within the company (and from some managers who provided stark contrast to Dan):

1. Leaders don't do what everyone else is doing. Everyone else is jockeying. That means they're doing things like:
  • trying to get face time with the boss
  • putting out fires
  • making their subordinates hate their jobs
  • falling back on the work that they did before they got promoted in order to look busy
  • tripping over dollars to pick up dimes
  • etc.
Instead they lead. If you're doing what all the other managers are doing then you're not a leader. If you're trying to compete with other managers, you're not a leader. But that's ok, because you probably think this post is stupid anyway, and you'll probably be promoted so that you can hurt more people and damage the company in more meaningful ways. Hope you're happy.

2. Leaders lead people. Leaders don't lead budgets or initiatives. They don't lead processes and procedures. They don't lead products or services. They lead people. Products, services, processes, procedures, initiatives, and budgets are results of their having led people. People know whether they are your end or your means. If they're your means, they will never follow you.  You are their customer at best, and their task master at worst. You are not their leader.

One day in the parking lot after work at a new job, I met a tall, slender guy getting into his Prius. We talked for a bit before I realized that he was the founder of the company. I was completely unfazed by the fact because he was so personable and so soothingly articulate. He blew a half-hour on me right there in the parking lot.

The next time I talked to him was at the Christmas party. The CEO was walking around the dinner tables handing out what I termed "complimentary handshakes." He would start to reach for your hand, and as soon as he had target lock he would start looking for the next hand. The whole encounter lasted about a second and a half. Some people gushed at the chance to shake hands with the boss. I wasn't one of them.

Later, though, I ran into the founder again. He was playing the piano. He remembered my name and our conversation. We exchanged a few words to maintain continuity. A few weeks later, he happened into the cafeteria for a late lunch and sat across the table from me. He picked up our conversation where we had left off weeks prior. I was so impressed by the contrast between my encounter with him and my encounter with the CEO that I told him about the complimentary handshake and asked, "What's it like handing your company off to a professional administrator?" He smiled.

3. Leaders make relationships, not rules. Dan Case didn't have rules. True, he would occasionally ask his team to do unavoidable, stupid bureaucratic things for short periods of time, but always apologetically. Other than that, there was only one rule that I ever heard him utter: "If you aren't making mistakes, you aren't trying hard enough." As a result, Dan's team didn't need rules. Each member of the team owned everything related to the team's success. There was no competition, no envy, no strife. Everyone on the team respected and genuinely liked everyone else on the team. Dan went so far as to hire desktop support technicians to be senior network engineers. It worked, because the new hires would apply every ounce of zeal they could summon to their new opportunity, and because the team would make them senior network engineers in short order

It was all done with relationships. Everyone on the team knew that Dan would bleed for them. That everything else would fall into place was an article of faith for Dan. He never wavered on this point because it wasn't a management ploy; it was the foundation of his leadership style.

At one of my jobs I was asked to build a suggestion box for IT. They director with whom I was partnered on the project insisted that we tell everyone, "the suggestion box is a place for constructive feedback, not for complaints." I asked him why we would bother to say that. Do we believe that it will be a problem? Do we want to treat our employees like children? Can we get their honest feedback by constraining them before they even see the suggestion box?

He was a manager, not a leader. He was trying to figure out how to control people. He needed rules.

Dan liberates the creative and productive powers of people. To him, rules are impediments; if he needs them, he has hired the wrong people, but I never saw that happen. People who go to work for Dan become the right people. Fast.

Also, relationships imply trust. Dan trusts everyone on his team with the keys to the kingdom. He will always give them full responsibility while retaining full accountability. Thus, if they make a big mistake, they learn a valuable lesson. If they deliberately take advantage of him, he will deal with it. The thing is, that in four-and-a-half years I only saw one big mistake, and nobody ever cheats Dan. One would sooner cheat one's own grandmother than cheat Dan. Why? Because Dan's team members revere him.

Dan can trust his people completely because he does trust them completely.

4. Leaders don't view "working the system" as the path to success. Leaders are competent and are not afraid to let results speak for themselves. Managers are afraid of their results, so they're always looking for a way to maneuver. (Remarkably, that obsession with maneuvering reduces their ability to generate real results.)

When you go to a leader with a political concern, they look at you straight in the eye and say, "Yeah, whatever." Then they go back to doing something important. Managers start maneuvering.

From a leader's point of view, the org chart is largely horizontal with names of highly competent people in bold. Managers, by contrast, focus on the hierarchy and attach themselves to whatever bosses can help them climb the ladder.

5. Leaders model achievement. Leaders know what kind of results they want, and they teach their subordinates by showing them. George Washington crossed the Potomac River with his men. Dan Case would clean toilets before he would let anyone on his team do it. They would be the cleanest toilets in Silicon Valley when he was done. Then he would give his team credit for the sparkling toilets. If someone on his team ever had to clean a toilet, they would instinctively try to make them cleaner than Dan's toilets because that's the kind of performance that Dan inspires.

Bonus: Leaders have a philosophy. Leaders ponder and contemplate their decisions, their actions, and their beliefs. They hone them over time. Life to them has little to do with quotas, budgets, and presentations. It has more to do with discovering how to better unlock the potential to do good in the people around them. Their values and their practical pursuits go hand in hand and shape them over time. Managers, by contrast, often don't have time for that kind of "nonsense."

Back to BAE. They took an immensely profitable United Defense into their collective and destroyed it. I wonder how often bureaucracy kills the goose that lays the golden eggs. I don't know what it is about people that makes them want to be in charge even if they can't lead, or why their decisions to pursue careers in management don't include personal commitments to become true leaders. That seems to be part of the dark side of human nature. It's a shame that it's so prevalent, but it makes it much easier to compete if you really want to be a leader.


13 Excellent Habits That I've Kind of Learned

I was so mad that I cried. I had built a chair that wouldn't stand up. It had everything a chair needs: 3 legs (albeit of different lengths and positioned randomly), a seat (a square piece of plywood), and a nail to fasten each leg to the seat. I was maybe ten years old.

My mom still mentions that story once every few years. I was a perfectionist back then, before I got lazy and easily satisfied. I was certain that my chair would work, and I had intended to gift it to my dad (as I vaguely recall). Alas it was not meant to be.

I had no idea what I was doing beyond "building a chair." I didn't know the principles involved. Worse yet, I thought that I knew; I brought "second order incompetence" to the table... er... chair. Having failed, I blamed the "stupid chair" and abandoned furniture making forever.

In the end (a) I didn't have a working chair and (b) I was unhappy. The reason? I was not tooled for the job.

Life has turned out to be a lot like that. I turned 18 on my high school graduation day. Both by age and social reckoning I was an adult. Ha! Again I found myself inadequately tooled for the job.

A few years--err--decades later I have figured out a few things. Some of them I have mastered--others I am still working on. (If I left out your favorites, feel free to mention them in the comments.)

1. Be happy. This is supreme. If life has a purpose (and I believe it does) then being happy must be central to it. Being happy is hard for most people. Some confuse happiness with pleasure. Others think happiness is not their lot in life. Most people who are unhappy don't know the root cause. Figuring that out and fixing it should be priority 1. If you're unhappy, get happy as quickly as possible.

Look at me--I'm happy...

2. Eliminate stress. Stress prevents happiness. Not all stress, mind you, but the kind that weakens you or leaves you with dull, pervasive of anxiety. The kind that makes you avoid the solution, only to get more stress. If you have that kind of stress, you can't be happy. That kind of stress doesn't give way to emancipating accomplishments. It just sits in your stomach generating acid. You have to get rid of it to be happy. Get help if you need it.

3. Get sufficient, regular sleep. People don't sleep well for many reasons. Stress (#2), entertainment, work, apnea, insomnia, and physical ailments all threaten sleep. If you don't sleep regularly and sufficiently, you cannot be healthy and you won't be happy. (I know because I tried it during a decade of encroaching sleep apnea, which I finally remedied surgically.) Sleeping well, however, is strong medicine. Some benefits include:

  • losing weight
  • thinking better
  • reducing headaches and other pains
  • preventing or shortening illness
  • reducing stress.
If you aren't getting enough sleep, nothing else will go right. Fix it today.

4. Be healthy and fit. Along with getting enough sleep, being healthy and fit is necessary to be happy and productive. If you've ever gone from being a slob to being healthy and fit, you understand the qualitative difference. (Ask me how I know.) You might feel like you're doing well even though you're overweight, badly nourished, and out of shape, but you're nowhere near your potential. Life with out sore knees, injuries, and root canals is bliss compared to life with them.

5. Fix yourself. Finding the root cause of unhappiness requires being open to the truth. The truth is that you are the reason for most of your unhappiness. Many people see themselves in terms of what others do to them or what happens to them. They fall back on "why me?" Here's the good news: if you're in debt, unemployed, on the verge of divorce, and watching your kids meltdown, congratulations! You might be humble enough to explore yourself honestly. It's not easy. In fact it's brutal. Still, frank introspection during this time will empower you to improve your emotional, psychological, and spiritual health. If you make the most of it, you won't find yourself back in this position again later. For those who haven't hit bottom, don't wait until you get there. If something isn't right in your life, fix yourself. You can't fix the world, and even if you could, you're probably the one who needs fixing anyway.

6. Meditate daily. For life to be meaningful, you need to improve constantly. Maybe you need to develop better character (we all do), be a better spouse or parent, or improve your employment. Perhaps you just need to keep your brain lubricated or understand the world around you better. In any case, make time daily to ponder on the weighty matters of your life. Record your best thoughts and try to act on them. Don't live a static life. You'll regret it later.

7. Don't confuse your ideal with your benchmark. This is where I've been very weak until just a couple of years ago. I have been very into #5 and #6 for over a decade. The problem was that every time I found a solution to some life problem, I started setting goals. (I wrote previously about why this is a bad idea.) I would expect myself suddenly to live according to my new ideal, as if my capacity would magically, instantly increase. When my prevailing habits and weaknesses prevented me from instamagically performing at that new, ideal level, it was like building my chair all over again. Discouragement and frustration would set in, and I would "fail." These days, when I see a life tweak that will make me happier, I factor it into the direction that I've set for myself, so that it will become part of my long-term lifestyle instead of a short-lived goal. If you know where you want to go, give yourself time to walk or run there. Don't insist on tele-porting.

8. Respond rather than react. So if I were Goliath, this would be the stone embedded in my forehead. Reacting involves testosterone, adrenaline, your brain stem, and your major muscle groups. It requires no consideration and is tactical in the extreme. It doesn't factor in everything that needs to be factored in. Trust me, I know. When your pupils have dilated and your heart rate has increased, be quiet and take your hands off of the keyboard. As my grandfather used to say, "Put it in your hat for two weeks." Then, if it's worthwhile, respond. Responding, not reacting, will bring your full analytic and intuitive powers to bear on your situation. You'll win respect and probably get the results you want.

Goliath never perfected "bullet time."

9. Treat everyone the same. Living in Korea has made this more obvious to me. Even more than in the US, people here give great deference to people higher than themselves in the food chain, while neglecting people "beneath" them. You cannot be happy if you don't treat people as people. What goes around will come around. The more attention you get from people north of you, the more attention you should pay to people south of you. Otherwise you're a beggar. You can be a beggar or you can be a benefactor--your choice. If you chose to treat people badly because you think that they're not as important as you are, life will make you pay for it someday. My grandfather used to tell me that in life "there are givers and there are takers." I feel very fortunate to say that I did not learn this the hard way.

10. Read. Spend time reading things that will improve and inform you. My most recent boss, Dan Case, had an evil trick. He would put a book that he thought I needed to read on his desk. When I came into his office, he would be "busy" for a few minutes, so I would have time to rifle through the stuff on his desk. I always ended up "borrowing" the book that he had planted there. Even once I found out what he was up to, I would still go along with it because it was the best mentoring I've ever had. The books he tricked me into reading honed my mind and shaped my character. From him I learned to read as a primary means of fixing myself. (See #5.)

11. Prize the early morning hours. Learn how to go to bed early and capitalize on the hours between 6 am and 9 am. You will be king of all you survey. (Make sure you get enough sleep though--go to bed early. See #3.) My dad told me years ago that these are the productive hours of the day. He was right. Most of my peers work from 9 to whatever, which gives me three hours to get the jump on them. After that, it's the corporate distraction machine.

12. Say and do important things. I learned this from James Lukaszewski's book. (It was one of my boss Dan's cunning plants.) People spend most of their time doing stuff that doesn't matter and then chattering about it. If you say and do important things, you get results and respect. Initially this means you'll be quiet and idle because you're usual agenda is stupid and useless. Then you'll figure out that you have a main event every day that will make you succeed even if you don't do anything else. Focus on that. I talked more about this idea in my review of "The 4-hour Workweek."

13. Embrace "No." Two letters can free you from the Matrix. By learning how to say "no" you can eliminate most or all of your effort that doesn't actually produce value. "No" takes a lot of forms. Sometimes in involves delegation. Other times it involves postponing. Often, though, it just involves saying "no" (in the most appropriate way possible). You can't say and do important things until you learn how to embrace "no." It's better to spend an hour figuring out how to say "no" than it is to spend that same hour doing stupid work. At least you will have developed your ability to say "no." Say "no" to 80 percent of the stuff that comes your way, and you'll be much more successful and have much less stress. (See #2.) Nothing bad will happen as a result. Try it.

So those are some of the tools that I wish I had acquired before I became a "grown-up." They've served me very well to the extent that I've incorporated them into my life. I never have gone back and tried to build a chair. I think I might just do that. With four legs. No nails. Maybe a back.


Top 5 Tips from "The 4-hour Workweek"

I recently read "The 4-Hour Workweek" from Tim Ferriss. It had some really good ideas that I've started using and that seem to be paying off. I'm really only talking about three chapters. The book frankly has a lot of "You too could be lying on a beach in the Bahamas" kind of hype that sells to somebody but not me. That said, it was worth the price just for the information that applied to me.

1. Most of what you do is a waste of time. I can see some people reacting badly to this, but I've always known, even when I've been most productive, that I spend the majority of my time in worthless meetings, yacking with people, and multitasking between stupid email, stupid IMs, and stupid social media.  Tim expresses it in terms of the 80/20 rule--you generate 80 percent of your value in 20 percent of your time.  The other 80 percent? Wasted dealing with stuff that barely matters.

Tim's whole idea is to eliminate that time so that (a) you build a reputation for churning out only high-quality, high-value work and (b) you have the remainder of the time to do with as you please.

He reverses the 80/20 idea as well, encouraging us to eliminate the 20% of stuff that causes 80% of our problems.  To sum up, just get rid of it.

2. Interruptions must be eliminated. He has several good ideas for eliminating interruptions.  Just to list a few:
  • Get rid of inbox notifications of every kind.
  • Put IM on do not disturb or turn it off.
  • When someone calls, tell them you have another call in just a few minutes, and ask them what you can do quickly to help them.
  • Let calls go to voice mail.
Actually I can't remember whether these are all his or whether I added something. In any case, I applied these suggestions liberally and nothing suffered as a result. Almost all interruptions are not time sensitive and most of them are not even important.

3. Block out high-value time in the morning. During the most valuable hours of the morning, put everything on "Do Not Disturb" and turn off alerts and indicators. Use that time to pound out your most valuable contributions. Don't let anything of low value invade that time. Make sure that your highest value job for that day is done when you're finished. Doing this consistently will make you shine as your work is done well and early every time.

4. Artificially constrain your time. This was the most original concept I found in these chapters. Tim reflects on assignments that he's had to complete at the last minute. We've all experienced this: something is due now that requires days of work. Somehow we get it done, complaining and stress not withstanding. How did we get it done? Tim says that we focus only on the critical pieces, throwing out everything that isn't necessary. We don't waste time on tangents, satisfying curiosity, or dilly dallying.

This is important because it is the exact complement of what we are after in the first place. We want to focus on important stuff to save time, but constraining our time helps us focus on important stuff.

I really liked this idea.

5. Dang, I don't have a #5. I accidentally combined two things earlier on. In any case, I recommend the book highly as a fresh way to approach time management and productivity, even if it only means reading a minor portion of the book.

If you've read the book, let me know which of these ideas worked for you.


Goals Are Bad

Goals are bad.  Maybe not all goals, but most goals are definitely bad.  I spent 20 years failing at goals by definition, i.e. "A goal without a deadline is not a goal, it's a wish."  Okay, so my goals have been wishes.  I've still failed at them.  That all ended a few years ago, though.  I'll get to that.

Right now people are preparing to make New Year's resolutions.  By preparing I mean eating a lot more and exercising less during the Holiday Binge.  I read in the NYT that "Research shows that about 80 percent of people who make resolutions on Jan. 1 fall off the wagon by Valentine’s Day."  Of course that's garbage, because it's more like 95% by Groundhog Day.  Worse, they're the same goals that failed last year.

Don't drive angry. Don't drive angry!

Why do we fail at goals so badly?  Were you paying attention?  GOALS ARE BAD.  That's why.  They're like drugs.  We feel good when we're setting them.  Then we finish setting them and the misery sets in.  Soon we hit bottom and the the only thing that will make us feel good again is some more goal setting.  We should have an anonymous group for goal-setting addicts.  Or we should just quit, cold-turkey, which is what I've done.

"So you just do nothing?"  No, I do a lot.  I just don't use goals to manage my endorphin and serotonin levels.  "But it's impossible to maximize accomplishments without goals!"  No, it's impossible for most people to succeed with goals.  I'll explain why.

By the way, I'm an expert on this topic.  For ten years I failed royally at the Franklin Day Planner system.  It's brilliant, and it's leather.  It works like this:

  • Determine your core values.
    • Set long-term goals to achieve your core values.
      • Set medium-term goals to achieve your long-term goals.
        • Set short-term goals to achieve your medium-term goals.
          • Create Daily Tasks to achieve your short-term goals.
          • Knock out your Daily Tasks consistently.
        • Thereby achieve your short-term goals.
      • Thereby achieve your medium-term goals.
    • Thereby achieve your long-term goals.
  • Thereby become a values-oriented, successful, happy person.
You can chuck the whole chiasmus, though.  If you miss a daily task, simply forward it to the next day.  That was the part that they designed for me.

Here are six reasons that goals are bad:

1. Goals are largely arbitrary.  We pick numbers and dates that have nothing to do with our desires and capacities, which will determine our ability to deliver.

2. Goals are rigid.  They don't allow for our priorities and interests to shift, or for us to get bored or lazy.

3. Goals are cheap.  The ambition required to set goals is significantly less than the ambition required to accomplish them.

4. Most goals are negative.  "Stop eating garbage."  "Stop yelling at the kids."  The problem is that, like magnetic repulsion, the farther you get from the problem the weaker the motivation gets.

5. Goals cause imaginary baseline shift.  Our goals represent an ideal; they depict how would behave if we weren't behaving the way we do now.  But once we set a goal, we treat it like it's our new baseline.  Of course we can't sustain it, or we would have been doing so already.  Eventually we come up short and feel like losers.

6. Goals report progress as failure.  When we miss a milestone on the way to accomplishing our goal, we think that we've failed.  This saps our motivation, weakens our resolve, and sends us on the path to abandoning our goal entirely, which happens around Valentine's day if you believe the NYT.

That last reason is the very worst.  Imagine that you decide to do 100 sit-ups every day.  You do great for two weeks.  Then, in week three, you miss Wednesday and Friday.  If you didn't have a goal, you would be 500 sit-ups ahead for the week.  You, however, have a goal.  You are 200 sit-ups in the red, and YOU JUST FAILED.  Your motivation will wane, and by Valentines day you won't be doing any sit-ups at all, chocolate abundance notwithstanding.

Nom nom nom.

By the way, in Korea, women give men chocolate for Valentine's day.  대한민국!

A few of you are thinking, "Matt, what are you, some kind of loser?  Where's your positive mental attitude?"  If you're the A-type folks who can do anything through brute force of will, I salute you. (Hi Mom! Hi Danny!)  If you're just self-improvement seminar junkies, you need to believe that you can have your accomplishments without beating yourself up and without spending a fortune to learn new jargon once a year.

Q: With what might one replace goals?
A: Setting direction.

I determine the direction I want to go in key areas of life and I do whatever I can reasonably do, whenever I can do it, to nudge myself in that direction.  I'm talking about daily, deliberate, introspective refinement within the bounds of reality.  This approach yields long-term lifestyle change as well as understanding and satisfaction.  I'm going to blog on this topic for a bit.  Somewhere out there some guy is getting an ulcer because he just forwarded eleven tasks in his day planner and I hope I can get to him before he has to order a page refill.

Update: The post on Succeeding by Setting Direction is here.