Thoughts on Writing, after Reading Emerson

The way to start writing is to start writing. Not so much to take a first step toward a destination, as to begin a process.

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Writing (as in art or any other creative pursuit) derives most of its value to the author in the doing, not in the final product.

In the thoughts and feelings that must be conjured, evoked and arranged.

In the discovery of fresh ideas whose seeds were always there inside you, latent and available, but that are only brought to flower with the application of effort to share some related thoughts with an audience.

In the sweat and toil of it, overcoming inertia, uncertainty, laziness, fear.

In striving to construct an architecture of ideas expressed in language that is honest, clear, compelling, complete and reaches for a measure of grace.

In learning how to advance your craft.

In learning something about yourself by exposing yourself to an audience.

In learning something about your audience by challenging yourself to know them well enough to ensure that what they read into your words is as intended.

In the satisfaction of doing something hard.

In answering the call, shared by each of us, to express and connect.

In the letting go that must come when it's time to put down the pen and allow your little creation to escape and succeed or fail on its own.

Thank You

It's a cold and rainy evening here in Carmel Valley. But I feel both warm and incredibly lucky.

In the past twenty four hours I've heard so many kind thoughts from so many of you as to leave me lost for words. (A rare state of affairs, as you well know.)

I've had phone conversations with three colleagues from past lives, with last contact dating back six, ten and thirty years.

I've been reminded of stories I have never forgotten, but rendered just that much more precious through finding that they hold special places in the memories of others as well.

I've heard from people I feel I let down. People with whom I've celebrated great success. People who are where I was a few short weeks ago, wondering what will come next in life's journey. People who are special to me here and now, but who took the time to record their thinking for others to see. People who have taken chances, and found that they've led to great promise. People who kindly suggested that my thoughts here have been of some help.

To all I say thank you, and thank you again.

And to those of you with whom I'll be embarking on a new journey, I promise to work very hard to create the opportunity for new successes, new memories, new stories… that we can share in the years that lie ahead.

6 Oak Meadow Lane
5:30 PM, 10 December 2009

A Private Letter, To Friends…

Just a short note to friends following this blog.

While not yet official, as many of you already know, I've decided to join NCR. I'll be serving as their Chief Marketing Officer and VP, Corporate Development. Part of John Bruno's team, my responsibilities will be to both help tell the story of what the company is about today and give shape to what it will be tomorrow. 

From time to time, as appropriate, I'm sure that I'll find opportunities to share some thoughts on the progress we make as we strive to turn a grand old company into a great new one.

But that's not my purpose here. Now, I simply want to thank all of you with whom I've worked in the past for your friendship, your caring and for all of the incredible memories that we created together. They are treasures that I carry in my heart, and always will.

There were many possible paths into this moment. One led here, to what is. Many paths lead forward, and none of us know which we'll follow to what will be. All we can do is our best to live each "now" to the fullest. And that is what I intend to do.

But it seemed appropriate to pause here, to offer a smile and a warm "Thank you" to all of you who have been such an important part of what was. Please accept them with my sincerest gratitude.

Now, onward.

Downtown Sunday Morning

We're sort of uptown types by nature, but this weekend Ellie and I spent time in the lower reaches of Manhattan.

The original idea was a change of pace stop on the way back to CA yesterday. Plans for returning to our west coast home changed when, over the weekend, I decided to accept an offer to join a company based in NYC. (Pending formal announcement, I'll need to be coy and ask you to stand by for full details.) As I write this post, I'm sitting in a Starbucks, an hour or so away from starting my new adventure.

Back to the weekend…

Flatiron-building  We decided to keep to our plans for a NY night in the Flat Iron / Gramercy Park area, now repurposed as a mini-celebration. As it turned out, we did so early in the evening with good friends and former colleagues at both Symbol and Intelleflex, Steve and his wife Pam (a couple of very special people), and later with my brother John, passing through NY doing a bit of fund raising for Stanford, where he serves as Vice Provost, responsible for the undergraduate program. (He's pretty special too.)

Venue for our dinner with Steve and Pam was Craftbar, Tom Colicchio's informal spot on lower Broadway. Based on this, our first visit, I can recommend it heartily: great food, service, atmosphere and vibe. We had a terrific time…

…As we did later that evening with John, back at The Rose Bar in our overnight spot, The Gramercy Park Hotel.

I'm sure that readership clever enough to be on this blog can read between the lines (new job to celebrate, long dinner with great friends, late night toasting with family…) and figure out that Sunday morning was slow and fuzzy in arriving.

So, sometime around 11:00, a walk in the bracingly cold air seemed like just the thing to usher in a return to clarity. We pointed ourselves south on 3rd avenue, eventually ending up at DBGB, Daniel Boulud's latest restaurant. Named with a tip of the hat to a long time fixture in the neighborhood, the underground rock club CBGB, and specializing in all things sausage, the place has been a big hit since opening mid-summer.

Ellie chose an incredibly creatively prepared and presented upscale hotdog; I went with a sausage done in the style of Tunisia. Great old blues songs were played one after another. The place filled with an ecclectic collection of folks, united in their obvious enjoyment of the experience.

This all played out in room set as a stage to simple foods, prepared with imagination and skill. The kitchen was open to view, and the room was ringed overhead by copper cooking pots, each accompanyed by a small plaque bearing the name of the famous chef who gifted it to Daniel Boulud for placement here.

The manager, (who we know from his earlier service at another Boulud establishment) explained that they make it a practice to seat those chefs immediately adjacent to "their" pots when they visit. I smiled and told him how that reminded me of how my friend Steve is notorious for something similar: seating his guest following a round at his club at a table facing a board displaying plaques commemorating past club champions — his and his son's names prominent among them, where they can't possibly be missed.

I recorded a bit of the DBGB scene, as well as sights on the walk back to the hotel, and set them into a brief video, which will serve as a punctuation to this post. Turn up the sound, and please enjoy…

Want to Learn Something? Teach It!

One of the best ways to learn something, or to significantly deepen your understanding of it, is to teach it.IStock_000004387778Small

What?

Well, in my experience, it's true, and powerful.

The trick, of course, is what teaching something forces you to do before you get up at the lectern, in preparation. (That's assuming of course that you take the teaching assignment seriously enough to prepare.)

Let's look a little deeper, starting with why this works.

1. Teaching forces a focus on relationships and patterns, not just stand-alone facts.

To teach something well, you'll need to go beyond simply relating the "atomic level" facts or ideas involved; you'll need to explain out how those building blocks form patterns, sequences and relationships.

True understanding of something is achieved when individual instances can be abstracted to general truths. By first parsing your subject into major blocks of knowledge, then arranging them into logical sequence and pointing out key patterns and relationships (cause and effect…), you'll not only be preparing to present the material in a manner best able to be absorbed by your students, you'll be teasing out new insights that will deepen your understanding.

Finally, this organization of ideas into a logical framework renders it much easier to remember. (It's how our mind works.)

2. Teaching challenges you to identify and use Analogies and metaphors.

People learn best when they can relate new ideas to things they already know and understand. So, you'll want to use them in teaching your subject. Which means you'll have to find or invent them. Which in turn forces you to think about those patterns mentioned above yet again, from a fresh perspective. All of which will result in a further deepening of your understanding. If you can't come up with compelling analogies to get across your ideas, chances are you'll need to dig into the topic a bit deeper to find those underlying patterns and relationships.

3. Preparing to teach identifies gaps in your knowledge.

If you go about your preparations with care, you'll likely find that your knowledge of the subject is complete in some areas, less so in others. In effect, you'll be forced to take inventory of your own understanding. Gaps will stand out, and can be filled with study or further thought.

4. Teaching engages more of your mind.

While I'm not a cognitive scientist, I've done enough reading on the subject to claim with confidence that the sort of active information processing the brain does when organizing information per the above, and again when actually presenting it verbally, graphically or both, engages parts of our mind not engaged in more passive activities such as reading.

5. Teaching creates positive and negative incentives toward learning.

Nobody likes to be embarrassed, a state all-too-easy to find yourself in if you get up in front of a class to teach something and aren't prepared, or can't answer questions in a satisfying manner. When we're agree to teach something, we instinctively get this, and so are motivated to put in the effort required to do a great job.

A Tip: regardless of the sophistication of your audience, when you're finished preparing your lecture, ask yourself if the main ideas are presented so that an audience of bright thirteen year olds could understand them, and be engaged by them. If not, you still have more work to do in distilling down the concepts and finding compelling ways to present them.

One of my favorite fellow bloggers, David A. Brock (@davidabrock), recently called attention to the physics lectures given by Richard Feynman, as exemplary of how very complex (and potentially dry) ideas can be presented so as to achieve both understanding and emotional engagement. I first read and listened to them a couple of dozen years ago. David's spot on, and this standard of excellence is one to aspire to reach.

By the way, these same learning benefits accrue whether you teach a course, write a serious paper, article or blog post (I'm learning something this way every time I do one of these) or step up to do some intensive one-on-one coaching for a promising team member.

Regardless of which vehicle you choose, in addition to deepening your understanding, you'll realize a powerful set of side benefits. You'll:

  • Improve your communications skills
  • Enhance your standing in your peer group, industry or community
  • Gain the satisfaction of helping others
  • Have fun!

So, next time you want to learn something, find a way to teach it. It'll be good for you.

Thoughts on Starting a New Job

IStock_000002979477Small I'm likely going to be starting in a new job (and new company) sometime before the end of the year. Perhaps some of you are too.

Beginnings are always important times. Early impressions matter, patterns once set can be difficult to change and establishing momentum early is important.

Here's how I'm planning to approach the process:

1. Get acquainted with the Team — As we know, business is a team, contact sport. Precious little can be accomplished without the aligned and active support of those around you. The foundation to build that on is trust, which in turn depends on the establishment of personal relationships.

That takes time and dedicated effort. So, job one is to meet and spend time with members of my team, my peers and those members of senior management with whom I don't already have a relationship. In each case the goals are similar:

  • Get to know them as people
  • Introduce myself to them
  • Ask their inputs on what's most important to focus on in getting started (see below)

Throughout, it's important to remember that you're inserting yourself into an existing web of relationships, some links in which may have formed over decades. Coming to understand how that's working today, and about the cultural norms within which it operates, is another early key point of focus.

With their inputs, I should be able to lay out a prioritized plan for where and when to focus my attention. That plan will likely look something like the next steps listed below…

2. Immediate (First Week) Priorities — If there's a ticking bomb somewhere, I'll want to discover it fast, apply triage as required, and begin to develop a get-well plan:

  • Are any critical programs or initiatives about to come off the rails?
  • Major customer satisfaction issues (external or internal)?
  • Looming legal issues?
  • Budget blow-ups?
  • Critical people issues?

If any exist, it's likely that I'll readily find out about some easily, others make take some digging.

3. Mid-term (First 90 day) Priorities — After gaining confidence that something isn't about to blow up, these items will get my attention next:

  • Program Reviews: I'll be joining an up-and-running business. There will clearly be a good number of existing initiatives and programs that my team has going, either independently or on a cross-functional basis with others. I'll want to know how all of those are going, by attending already scheduled program reviews, calling new ones if required and spending one-on-one time with owners and other key players.
  • External Constituency Meetings: Since mine will be a market-facing responsibility, I'll want to meet as many key customers, as well as partners and suppliers, as possible, as soon as possible. The discussion agendas will be similar to those for the team meetings, described above. Listening here is more important than talking.
  • Establish a Local Management System: While the company overall most likely has a well-structured system of meetings and other processes by which it operates, it's likely that some local refinement and personalization will be appropriate.
  • Fill any Short Term Team Gaps: A thorough plan for Organization Development will come a bit later (see below), but it's possible that I'll find it important to fill critical gaps in the team early on. In some cases, I'll choose to don another hat or two rather than make a hasty hire or promotion before I know how to do so intelligently.
  • Refine and Align the Definition of My Role: Mine will be a newly created function. While I'll clearly have a good idea going in as to the definition of its responsibilities and accountabilities, it's also likely that some refinement of that initial conception may be appropriate. I'll want to focus on this, and secure alignment all around regarding any mid-course corrections required, during the first ninety days or so.
  • Homework: I'll want to lay out a learning agenda for myself: existing Business Plans, Industry Briefings, Analyst Reports, etc. Reading stuff for nights and travel time.

4. Longer Term (First 6 – 12 month) Priorities — Next, I'll turn attention to strategies and organization development:

  • Strategy Refinement: While the role I'll be taking is new, the team(s) I'll be responsible for are existing. They're executing current plans under some combination of company-wide and local strategies. While I'll want to understand what those are as early as possible (via the steps above), I won't be expecting to change them in the early going, if for no other reason (there are several), I won't know enough to do so in any informed way. Within the first 6 to 12 months though, it will be time to focus on refreshing, refining or extending those strategies. This is a team effort, and my preference is for broad participation. (More on this some other time.)
  • Organization Development: By now, I'll know enough to be thoughtful regarding how to build the organization I'll be responsible for so as to meet our responsibilities and challenges. Some of this may be done within the context of an annual planning cycle; some may not be able to wait that long. We'll see.

So, that will be my basic plan of attack. I will refine it as I come to learn more during the early stages of settling in. Should be fun.

Clear. Compelling. Credible.

Great leaders offer clear, compelling and credible visions of a future better than current reality. The teams they are responsible for follow and excel because they understand exactly where they are headed (clarity), develop a deeply emotional connection with getting there (compelling) and believe that future can be realized, even against tall odds (credibility).

I believe that every one of these ingredients are critical to a successful vision, which in turn is a critical foundation for all the other pillars comprising great leadership (ability to attract great talent, create and sustain a winning culture, excellence in execution, continuous improvement).

Clear, compelling and credible. Simple, right? It's not in practice.

Achieving clarity (and coherence) requires a deep understanding of your strategic situation(customers, competition, internal competencies, industry trends and dynamics and so on), the ability to formulate a winning strategy rich enough to inform the myriad of tactical decisions a business must make, and then to reduce that strategy to its essence, so that it can be understood by all.

When you or I look at a chess board mid-game, we see complexity. A couple of dozen pieces, as many or more possible choices of next move for each player, millions of possible ways the game might play out. A grand master sees with clarity. A current position with a certain balance of power, and several possible "lines" of naturally connected moves that link present situation with desired outcome. It's the same for great leaders — they have the ability to see and articulate paths forward through complexity, because they have developed a sense of the patterns and forces that constrain, amplify and shape such things in their industry.

Can you explain your strategy to a seventh grader? No? Not simple enough.

Great leaders connect with their teams on an emotional plane and ensure that the team vision becomes personnal. That's the only way visions can compel. Achievement of your goals has to become the personnal commitment of each and every team member. Not in some dry, institutional sense. It has to matter deeply to each team member whether you win or lose as a team. This happens when the leader can shape the aspirations at both team and individual levels. This requires emotional intelligence and the courage to use it. The ability to understand how other human beings think and feel about situations and possibilities, and the willingness to operate with the candor, sincerity and even vulnerability required to earn the trust needed to be heard and believed. More than any other attribute, this is what separates leaders from managers.

You think about your business at 4:00 AM. Does your team? No? You haven't connected with them.

Incredible visions don't become blueprints for success. Teams may be wowed by them, but never fully invest in them because they don't believe they can come true. Without that investment of belief and effort, the vision will not be realized. So credibility, in natural counterpoint to the mandate to be compelling (read bold, exciting, BIG), is the final required ingredient to a winning vision. Credibility is achieved when the leader shrewdly balances boldness with blunt realities and gets the team to be confident that they can accomplish more today and tomorrow than they thought they could yesterday.

Does your team deeply believe in your vision? No? Maybe they don't believe it.

Leadership is hard. That should be your inspiration.

Catching Up

Sunday afternoon, late, dusk. Time for a bit of catch-up on the past week's goings on, (during which I did more living than blogging). I'll do it summary style this time:

Next phase of career coming into focus. Most likely trajectory will find me rejoining old friends on a new mission, to help lead the transformation of a grand old company into a compelling new one. On final approach; ETA two or three weeks.

Visit through NYC terrific…

Began with crafty cab driver whose very purpose for living was to gain a car's length advantage over adversaries at every possible opening, real or imagined. Drivers of vehicles many times our size were left cowering.

Continued as we checked into favorite UES haunt, to hearty greetings, personal touches and postcardCentral Park 11 09 1   views.

Warmed further by smiles of mutual recognition exchanged with a piano man of long acquaintance.Chrisgillespie
 

Have a listen…

01 I've Got A Crush On You

Further still by the visit of fellow with whom I shared a very noisy foxhole during the SBL campaign, and by the sage advice he shared.

Further yet as we retired to a magical place to wine, dine and be entertained by a showman more people should know.Steve Tyrell
 

After good byes, a nightcap with accompaniment by the evening's third entertainer.

Loston Harris
 

Pause for sleep.

Morning brought coffee, fresh berries and the NYT, all blessedly late.

Haircut and shave (indulgence, served over the good natured banter of 40 year veteran barbers of Italian descent), then productive conference call.

Upside of being "in transition": you can find yourself DONE at 11:45. I was.

Walked uptown, bought a couple of books. Downtown, some tea, a couple of tea sets (for east coast digs).

After channeling The Thin Man for a bit, decided to take my camera for a walk in the Park. Results were satisfying.

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Piano man again. Gave him one of two books I purchased (the one about Pops). He gave it back, asking for dedication. I complied.

Dinner at another "local". Al Roker and guest just off to my left. (Saw Matt Lauer earlier.) Season's first truffles (over scrambled eggs).

Secured rented transportation on Thanksgiving morn, and headed east, bulging with luggage.

Met at former family estate by young man who, in my estimation, is the best son a father could have.

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TDay Dinner with all the fixings at a golf club that gets it right every year, (and where I may actually get to play a round next year!)

Son's TDay+ party provisioned by mom. Off he went by sea and land, into enemy territory (MA).

Saturday: up early, bio-reading, tea. A bit of seaside photojournalism.Short Beach 4   Meeting with a small, talented team looking to turn adversity (being laid off) into opportunity (a promising start-up idea). I may have helped, a little.

Woke early again today. Rose quietly, tip-toeing so as not to wake Ellie.  Descending stairs, noticed I must have left lights on last night. No. Ellie was sipping coffee, watching old movie.

More tea.

Browsed online instantiations of old media (there really IS a way forward; don't they see it?). Came across article on HDR photography. Bought HDR software (impulse indulgence). As it downloaded, received Google Wave invite. What to do? One tab for each, I multi-tasked for an hour or so.

Still early, I asked Ellie if she would like a road trip. Nods later, off we went. Sag Harbor. The American Hotel. Bloody Mary, Paté, Lobster BLT, HDR experiments….. double espresso, home.

That's pretty much it. Later.

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Short Beach Morning

This morning arrived cold and gray, with a gusting wind from the north. I woke early, well before first light and, unable to summon back sleep, made my way downstairs, fixed a pot of tea, lit a fire and sat down to read (the biographies of Emerson and James I'm now working through).

A bit later, it appeared that the weather and angle of the sun might create conditions favorable for capturing a few images. I had an hour or so before a mid-morning meeting with some folks I had offered to help with planning a start-up, so I headed directly north, to a local beach operated by the town of Smithtown, New York.

Short Beach 9  I arrived and found that the visitor population was now exactly one. (Although fresh looking tracks in the sand led me to surmise that someone had walked their dog on the beach sometime earlier, and a biker trio rumbled through mid-way during my time there.)

The wind was gusting 30 – 40, cold and dry. Shafts of sunlight appeared now and then through otherwise brooding skies. The waters, in both Nissequogue estuary and LI Sound, were in a fine boil. I captured a few images. I hope that you enjoy them in the album at right.