The Golden Balance

Aristotelian philosophy holds among its tenets the merits of striving for a harmonious middle ground in all things. Many others since the ancients have voiced a similar point of view.

But others, not innate immoderates incapable of seeing an alternative point of view, but practical people thinking about how to get things done in the real world of business, have warned against aiming at analogues to The Golden Mean.

We're warned that failure to be decisive when called for leads to paralysis, that wavering leaders don't get followed and that trying to be all things to all people is a recipe for mediocrity, at best.

More specifically…

Michael Porter of Harvard cautions us against getting strategically "stuck in the middle" as, for example, between premium and value-based positioning.

Geoffrey Moore takes a similar position with regard to the need to choose a business architecture optimized for complex system sales or for sale of high volume standard products.

Treacy and Wiersema argue that we must have the discipline to choose between three fundamental strategic alternatives or fail to become a market leader.

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Small Within Big

IStock_000002647543XSmall "We need to stay small within big." It was one of the core ideas our founder, Jerry Swartz, preached from our earliest days at Symbol, right through to the point where we had grown to be pretty big indeed (5600 associates, $1.6B top line, $4B market cap). Jerry understood that our ongoing success would depend on maintaining many of the behaviors that come naturally as a small company, but that can fall by the wayside if not continuously reenforced as an enterprise scales.

In may ways, I believe that we were quite successful in living up to Swartz's admonition. I further think this was one of the secrets of our success, and a principal reason so many of us developed and held a deep passion about working there.

Allow me to offer a few thoughts about how to stay small within big…

Keep focused externally, on what matters: customers and competition. Large companies often fall into the trap of getting all wrapped up in their own organizational matters and processes, and fail to pay attention to what's paying the bills.

When focusing on competition, work hard to ensure that your team takes success and failure as seriously as they care about their home town ball team's winning and losing.

Commit to remain responsive. Answer all calls and emails within 24 hours. Manage time effectively to allow responsiveness. Not too long ago, I called to schedule a five minute follow-up phone call with an executive at a major corporation. His assistant offered me two time slots, both six weeks into the future! I thought she was joking; I found out not, and that this sort of thing is routine there.

Use small-as-possible cross-functional teams as the basic organization building block to get things done. One of the things that brings about hardening of corporate arteries is the silo behavior that develops if most work is organized on strict functional lines. Cross-functional teams, properly managed and supported by executive management, break down silo walls. Often, small teams get more done than larger counterparts, especially when it comes to innovation.

Make sure that everyone understands not just what they're supposed to do (priorities), but why it's important (in the big picture). If not, they'll start approaching their work as "just a job", not as a passionate undertaking aimed at big things. You want to laugh at Dilbert cartoons, not become one.

Encourage experimentation and learning (especially from worthwhile failures — those with initial promise that didn't quite work out). Risk aversion is another affliction of companies that have grown too large (in their thinking and behaviors) to succeed.

Encourage unorthodox ideas (and their authors). They are often the keys to breakthrough success. Learn how to manage and nurture productive non-conformists (not easy, but important). You do not want a company of clones.

Put real energy into ensuring that there's a genuine and candid dialogue up and down and all across your enterprise. All hands meetings, online forums, management by walking around are all effective tools. Listening, genuinely listening to what your team is saying is incredibly important.

Don't forget the basic principals that keyed your success and fueled your growth to begin with. Even as you develop and deploy new strategies to address new opportunities and challenges, be careful not to forget or abandon blindly the cultural values and other foundational elements on which your early dreams were realized.

Don't forget to have fun.

Consider using Jerry's "Small within Big" phrase, it worked for us!

I'm sure that there are many other ideas, but the ones above are among those that proved successful in my personal experience. Perhaps they may be of use in yours.


Sometime around 1988 or so my boss at the time, and then president of the company, Ray Martino, decided that he needed to bring in a seasoned sales and marketing leader to help take Symbol to the next level.

We were just about to pass the $100 million revenue threshold, one of those milestones whose crossing often leads to failure for companies who don't recognize and address the challenges brought on by scale. In addition, we were about to expand into an entirely new line of business and acquire another company of equal size to our own.

I was responsible for marketing at the time, and would report to the newcomer, Paul Kemp, joining us as SVP, Marketing and Sales. Twenty five years my senior, Paul brought a wealth of experience and past successes in high tech.

While I liked Paul immediately (impossible not to — meet him sometime and you'll know why), I wasn't crazy about a move that felt like I was being pushed down in the organization, and one step further removed from senior leadership. And I was…

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Dispatch from Maui

Some random observations from our time in paradise:

  • Peter from Westchester, discernible accent from one county to the south, golf partner, who commented on the first tee that he couldn't get over how beautiful it is here. Seeing it fresh through his eyes… he's right.
  • Mark, larger than life character with physical proportions to match, honeymooner from Atlanta, who tells everyone he meets that he's here on a mission to make a baby. (Told me that on his first night on island, further noting that his bride was in their room exercising to a "Buns of Steel" DVD.)
  • An older couple who, during our first chat, explained that they had just joined the Neptune Society, and were trying to decide whether to plan their end-of-life ceremonies in Oregon or Switzerland… and leaning toward the latter (because of the chocolate and red wine offered on the day).
  • A younger couple who consumes prodigous quantities of food at each and every available service in the Club Room; skinny as rails, hard edge to them; Meth?
  • The blank white screen on my IPhone, after it was swept to a hardwood floor by my gesticulations over some story or other. Related: the look of loss on my face when I confronted the reality that I would be IPhone-less for the next 5 days.
  • A pool attendant hawking CDs of his Hawaiian easy listening musi. We bought one. (It's actually not bad.)
  • Tears in my wife's eyes, while explaining that she felt badly about not buying an anniversary card for me (with me thinking that hers was an indescribably kind-hearted act, staged when she realized that I, once again, had committed that act of omission myself).
  • A sizable gash in my head formed by the abrasive action on my scalp of a sharp-cornered, ceiling-mounted DVD player in the SUV that transported us from the airport to our hotel. Brilliant design, thank you Lincoln.
  • Noting the great WiFi coverage throughout the resort, including poolside, while remembering a trade magazine editor in 1993 challenging me with the question, "but will wireless networking ever go mainstream?"
  • Resort traffic pretty slow overall, only 20% of lounge chairs around pool occupied… but 100% of cabannas with HD flat panel TVs, refrigerators, etc., booked out.
  • A horsedrawn carriage, in the rain, at sunset.
  • Erin, the Club room attendant, talking about the adventures she wants to experience before settling in to adult life.
  • The beautifuly arc of my Kapalua logo Calloway Tour-i ball as it drew gracefully with the trade winds and found its way to the middle of the third green on the Bay Course; the arc of the same ball as it sliced over the thick hedgerow marking the OTB boundary bordering the right side of the the 9th fairway. Golf.

Kapalua Bay