Category Archives: Uncategorized

Brexit in the Bardo

As I made my way to the Capital Factory, that go-go hive of entrepreneurial-ism in the center of Austin, to hear what the U.K. Dept. of International Trade had to say about Brexit, I thought about a University of London marketing class I took years ago. The professor, a Scot, turned to a world map. He drew a line between Europe and the United Kingdom. Then he drew an arrow across the Atlantic pointing toward the United States and made a prediction: At some point, the British will break away from Europe and join the United States in an economic block. Prescient fellow.

Two countries with a lot in common. Map courtesy of the mls.co

Borders, walls and disagreements

It takes guts to tell your story when the facts aren’t clear, but the U.K. team did an admiral job. Representatives from the British Consulate’s Department for International Trade, law firm Taylor Wessing and accountancy Blick Rotherberg were optimistic that even the Irish border conundrum could be resolved — at the last minute (“That’s the way Europeans do things.”).

 It was one day after Parliament sent Prime Minister Theresa May once more into the breach of negotiations with the European Union, and less than a week after Congress reached an agreement to pause the longest government shutdown in U.S. history so our elected officials could settle a disagreement about a wall between neighbors.

Almost three years ago, on the heels of a political gambit by then-Prime Minister David Cameron, British voters opted to leave the European Union. The questions are when and how. Photo courtesy of the Associated Press

Do we stay or do we go?

Ross Allen, the New York City-based director at the U.K. Department for International Trade led the discussion, reminding us that the United Kingdom has a special relationship with the United States. The two countries are genetically linked — in language, history, laws and culture — and those commonalities matter a great deal.

Data Privacy: Privacy continues is a hot button for the U.S. GDPR is in place in the U.K., as is Privacy Shield. Regulation is a moving target, but there is a common foundation.

Business Headquarters: “Pragmatism” is the operative word. Considerations such as degree of industry regulation, the need to move people around Europe, the size of the organization, labor laws and tax rates all factor into a decision.

Regional Differences: London will continue to be its own country, as are all great cities. But other regions, particularly the north, where businesses that rely on international supply chains will be hit hard – Leeds, Northern Ireland, Wales. I read this morning that U.K. automotive production declined 8% in 2018, as investment plummets and jobs disappear.

Trade: Separate trade agreements are in the works with Israel and talks are underway with South Korean and Japan.

Defense: NATO, an intelligence community that’s joined at the hip.

Worst case scenario? On March 29, Parliament decides not to decide. A second referendum to stay in the E.U.? Too late and too expensive. Unlikely.

“I am England”

Every muddle has its heroes, and I asked Vice Consul Haileigh Meyers and her Silicon Valley-based colleague David what they thought about Prime Minister Theresa May.

She (Mrs. May) is a true public servant, and she realizes she needs to get this done. She’s driven by a commitment to public service.

UK International Trade and Investment
British Consulate-General
After negotiation Brexit, Theresa May will not run again for prime minister. Photo courtesy of euractiv.com

Imagine taking a job that no one else wants, a job that brings you defeat and humiliation by even your closest allies. Imagine sticking with that job as other opportunities more to your liking and skill set pass you by. If you haven’t read the New Yorker piece on Mrs. May, do. Here’s hoping Queen Elizabeth, another woman who knows a great deal about sacrifice in the name of public service, can offer guidance from her own long tenure as leader of a nation that faced and dealt with dwindling political and economic power.

Y2K.2 ?

Closing the session, Allen tossed out a provocative idea: “What if it’s just like Y2K, and we wake up and nothing happens?” Some of us remember the panic that preceded the turn of the century hysteria about whether networks and data centers could tolerate the transition between “1999” and “2000.”

After the session, I rode down in the elevator with Drew Haas, who is moving to London next week to open the U.K. office of San Saba Pecan. They have a warehouse outside of York, and Drew will be growing the business in Europe, where almonds are vulnerable to some stiff Texas competition.

POSTSCRIPT: Inflexibility: The flip side of determined leadership?

UPDATE March 18, 2019: The BBC reports Mrs. May will try to get her proposal passed after two rejections, something the now-famous House of Commons Speaker John Bercow has ruled as a no-go unless there are “substantive changes” to the proposal. Will Mrs. May charge into the same brick wall once again?

UPDATE March 21, 2019: The meltdown.


Can Tech Companies Protect Privacy — and Still Make Money?

Did you know Google Feud’s #1 response to the phrase, “My friend is addicted to ____” is  “phone.” But as technology continues to permeate our lives, a lot of tech companies would plug in “collecting your personal information” instead.

A few weeks ago a friend mentioned that she’s closeted her Alexa after getting a call from a vendor offering her a great price on tickets to a concert featuring country music superstar Brad Paisley.  This following a conversation among family members the day before about that very concert. They happened to be standing next to a kitchen counter where Alexa sat. Was she listening?  Who knows.

Alexa

Good deeds? Amazon’s Alexa will even donate to your favorite charity.

Unlike the Europeans who’ve been quick to cry foul, we Americans remain confused and oddly offended when we discover (if we discover) our information has been sold and used without our permission. There is no constitutional right to privacy.  In the 1970’s, the Federal Trade Commission was charged with protecting and regulating privacy rights, but the FTC has hesitated to move decisively.

Succeeding and staying ahead is a struggle for any company, particularly small tech companies.  Long ago, I took a job on the frontier of the New Economy when a venture-funded start-up hired me to roll out their personalization offering, a service that would help large brick-and-mortar retailers boost their online  loyalty (and sales) by tailoring web views to shoppers’ traits — gender, geography and shopping habits. It was a great customer service idea, one that has evolved to the point that the Zappos we admire  haunt us for days to come.

 

At the time, we jumped into the thick of it. It was an opportunistic, defensive strategy. We formed a privacy advisory council, met with Congressional representatives,  influencers and media. In 2000, we joined and participated in the FTC’s Advisory Committee on Online Access and Security.  The offering would ask people to opt in, rather than automatically including them in invisible information gathering.  But we were never able to sell a product, and the company folded 18 months later.  We were small, but if you’re big and want (or need) to feed investors and stakeholders, the temptation to step over the line to get ahead is going to be even greater. It gets hard to even see the line when you’re in the rush of generating and executing great ideas.

We did all the right things in those early days, but we ultimately failed because customers expect companies to deliver value — innovation — first.  Privacy is generally an afterthought. Amazon, Facebook and Google knew this from the get-go.

Postscript:  The Washington Post reports that the FTC has asked Facebook, whose entire business model seems to be built on selling users’ data,  to appear and an expanding Congressional probe is including Google and Twitter. Should be interesting.

No time for blame

Each of us is tasked with playing the hand we’re dealt. Some of the cards are stacked in our favor; many are not. Nonetheless, it’s a package deal, and the better we understand those cards, the more we’ll be able to accomplish.

I thought about this after reading David Remnick’s sad portrait of Hillary Clinton, in which she blames her gender — among other things — for her loss.  Mrs. Clinton is a super-sized public figure and a role model of tremendous potential.  Perhaps it is a necessary catharsis, but I was disappointed to read that she chose to waste her time.

The New Yorker

What could have been: The cover The New Yorker Had Planned for Hillary Clinton’s victory in the 2016 election. Courtesy of The New Yorker, Sept. 24, 2017

It’s helpful to understand why we fail. But blame is time consuming.  This I know: the faster we lay it aside, the less time we waste. Contrasting the Clinton debacle with Al Gore’s loss to George W. Bush in 2000, Remnick notes that Gore was 52 at the time; Clinton, 69. Gore had time to grieve, move on, make a fortune and win a Nobel Peace Prize.  Clinton is 69. “She will have a hard time finding a similar peace or place in public affairs.”

Oh, gosh I hope not.

The “genderizing’ conundrum

It’s always worrisome when a noun becomes a verb. So let’s step back. The 19th Amendment was passed in 1920. When I was in high school, girls weren’t allowed to learn small engine repair; we were shuffled off to home economics and white sauce. When I left school and took a temporary job with H.Ross Perot’s Electronic Data Systems, I was humiliated by a fellow (male) employee’s passing me a handwritten note warning me that my sleeveless dress was inappropriate because it revealed my arms. I left the job.

Mrs. Clinton, like Texas Governor Miriam “Ma” Ferguson who presided in the 1920’s and 30’s, rose to power on the coattails of her husband. She, like Sherry Lansing in Hollywood, Toni Morrison in literature, and Indra Nooyi and others among the Fortune 50, carved their roles out of a male tradition  There was no can-do legacy. Unlike Athena, the goddess of wisdom, who sprang fully formed from Zeus’ head, confidence is earned, not awarded.

Focus on making the world a better place — starting where you are

So why not focus our time and energy on moving forward? The fields of law and medicine are being transformed by women. I look forward to seeing similar trends in education and politics (you go, Mrs. Clinton). But no question, it’s a slippery slope. Every day I see young women reverting to baby talk, tantrums, behavior that may have worked in middle school, but is cringe-making in the workplace.

We have a limited time to do what we want and need to do. Life tosses storm debris in our way.  I don’t know how many times I said, “I can’t find the job I want until after my mother dies.”  I didn’t want to face the conflict and ultimately wasted precious time blaming absent siblings, geography — and gender — for lost time and opportunity.

It was a waste of time.  Ultimately, we’re shaped by the battles we fight, and its our ability to accept our faults and failures that make us role models.

whining

Is it possible to get things done in a meeting? Maybe.

How we engage with one another is an organization’s greatest strategic asset — and one of the most neglected.  Searching for inspiration, I was thrilled to hear Ray Dalio, founder of the high-flying Bridgewater Associates talk about their culture of “radical transparency.”

The key is to be good with each other. If you’re radically truthful with the other person and you believe that that other person is going to be truthful with you, while that may be difficult initially in that moment, it builds better relationships and it builds better quality work.

Think about it: what if all of us could build ways to be more direct, empathetic and well, business-like with our colleagues?  We might get more done.

Image result for new yorker cartoon meeting

Cartoon by Kaamran Hafeez courtesy of The New Yorker

To the uninitiated, the methods Dalio uses sound as extreme as the nature of a hedge fund’s work. But the approach is founder-developed and enforced, built on lessons learned in a fiercely competitive industry.  Teams rate one other electronically in real-time during meetings, testing the viability of investment strategies. And don’t we all constantly (and silently) rate our colleagues?

I’ve been investigating an approach to meetings called Liberating Structures, an approach to managing meetings and presentations through a series of formatted, creative exercises, debriefing after an exercise by asking a group to jot down their impressions on sticky notes:

  • What (did you observe),
  • So What (conclusions did you draw?)
  • Now What?

It’s a timed exercise, and notes are grouped in categories. The group formulates an action plan based on the results. It’s a participatory, grassroots approach designed to eliminate the obstructions we all automatically produce when seated (or standing) around a table.

I can’t label my first attempt a success.  There were some ruffled feathers, and a couple of people didn’t like the variation in the “way we do things.”  But when is it easy to try something new?  The trick is to impose enough structure (timed intervals, simply worded assignment, small groups) to cultivate sincere engagement. I’ll keep you posted.

Update: People are the foundation of any discipline, and Liberating Structures is no exception. The discipline was developed by two men, Keith McCandless and Henri Lipmanowicz, with backgrounds in health care and pharmaceuticals.  But our work group is almost all women – extraoardinary people, mostly from nonprofits tasked with doing seemingly impossible tasks — “fixing” family violence; turning around troubled teens by putting them to work on the land, farming; providing mental health in a state that doesn’t believe in it.  There’s a big initiative at Seton, a major hospital network — if anything needs to be untangled, it’s our health care system.

Coding is Only the Tip of the Iceberg, Ivanka

News that Ivanka Trump plans take coding classes with her five-year old daughter reminded me how important it is for public figures to use role-model power carefully, strategically.  Witness Michelle Obama’s use of fashion as a channel for her message.

I get that women are under-represented in technical fields. I also get that many young women are unprepared to make enough money to buy a car, home, support kids and their own old age. But not everyone is a coder, and the odds are that almost any skill acquired today will be outdated tomorrow.

Jobs are more than coding, and there are more jobs than coding

I’m not minimizing programming skills; they cultivate patience and problem solving ability.  But, coding is not the silver bullet of gender equality. Girls need more than C++.  They need to be able to read and write and think. Companies have layoffs and starts ups fail.  Jobs disappear. Spouses die and family members need care. We age.  Technology is a big part of the way we live, but what about education, health care, finance, dog training?

Case in point:  a young friend, Mary Hill, was in town to celebrate winning a $100,000 in angel funding.  Mary is developing an at-home test for sexually-transmitted diseases, a global market that’s projected to reach $190,000 million by 2022. Mary, I should mention, was raised by a single mom who worked for a state agency.  She went to a public high school, an arts magnet no less,  and nurtured by a very creative family, was able to take it from there. She doesn’t know how to code, but she is definitely a problem solver.

Apprenticeships across industries?

So, here’s hoping Ivanka’s coding will help. Maybe her example will help her dad encourage some big-pocketed businesses — pharmaceutical companies, large banks,  retailers, real estate developers — to invest in some education and training to caulk some of the gaps in our educational system, much like technology companies are doing today with coding sponsorships.  It’s good business and smart investing.

 

 

Look for Unexpected Leaders, Or Be One

I’m finding myself inspired by unexpected leaders: people I think I know, people I don’t know but am surprised by.

We crave leadership when tragedy hits. A young colleague of mine was killed on Saturday in a late-night car wreck. She was 23 years old, a single mom who left 3-year old son. Very few people know what to do when a tragedy likes this hits the workplace. An all-hands meeting was held, tears were shed, flowers brought, work efforts encouraged. It was another colleague, a man who’d raised a son, who said, “All I can think about is my son,” and volunteered to set up a scholarship fund for the boy, an action that could change that child’s life.

Then, driving home, I heard a familiar twang on the radio newscast.  It was former President George W. Bush taking full aim at, if not the sitting president directly, his actions on:

gwbush

Former President George W. Bush with his wife, Laura

  1. Immigration
  2. The free press (think about that one, coming from a man who was tarred, feathered and ridden out of town on a rail by the aforementioned press)
  3. Pre-election communications with Russia.  Will Bush, like his predecessor Nobel Prize winner Jimmy Carter, it his leadership stride after his presidency ends?

Did Laura put him up to it?  We’ll never know. But we listen to people who have survived and learned from failure and blame.

Credentials don’t make a leader.  I was reminded me of a conversation I’d had in late December with a friend who knew U.S. District Judge Janis Graham Jack.

judgejacks

Federal Judge Janis Jacks

In 2016, Jack ruled that the Texas foster care system violates children’s rights.  Essentially, she sued the State of Texas for its appalling, ongoing neglect of the children consigned to its care. She sued the state.  My friend, who knew Judge Jack early in her career, commented on her lack of high-powered credentials.  “Can you imagine,” he said, “She took them all on (the State of Texas elected officials) to take care of our kids.”

In these interesting times, look around for leaders — or be one yourself.  Take positive action, be clear and pave the way for others to follow. We need you.

 

Women: If It’s Your Talk; Lead

I recently sat in on two consecutive presentations given by women – the first, by a software consultant; the second by a director of marketing for a startup company.  Both women were somewhere around 30, casually dressed and clearly competent. One controlled her audience; the other did not. Here’s what happened:

“Your opinion, while interesting is irrelevant”

The  audience of about 50 software engineers sat quietly and took notes during the consultant’s presentation. Maybe they were younger and less experienced. Maybe their mothers taught them good manners. They photographed slides and asked a handful of questions during the presentation but mostly waited for a discussion period at the end.

In loved the quote the second speaker opened with, You opinion while interesting, is irrelevant.” She then poked fun at herself, saying she was director of marketing because there was no one else in her department. She characterized her company as simple and straightforward; her market as full of people who were bored on Fridays.  She got as far as her first slide before two men began critiquing her process. Their comments, though interesting, were irrelevant to the rest of us, and time-consuming.

Be like Beyonce:  Ask for feedback. Look for it. Give it. 

I wondered if she wanted to have more of a collaboration with her audience  rather than a traditional presentation. But 30 minutes and two slides into the pitch, it became clear that she was not in control. We’ve all been there at some point in our careers, and I know this woman will learn from this experience.In fact, in describing how she shares her data with others in her company, she told a story of  Beyonce’s immediately critiquing each of her performances, sending night-of feedback to her back-up performers.

Be professional; never, ever minimize your professionalism or what you have to say 

Speaking to a group of people you don’t know is a challenge, any way you cut it. But there are ways to hedge your bets and set yourself up to be successful:

  • Dress the part. Don’t fool yourself: Men can get away with dressing more casually than women can.  Dress the part you’re playing. If you’re an executive, look like one.
  • Define your expertise, don’t inflate it but don’t minimize it either.
  • Set clear guidelines for your audience. If in doubt, use the tried and true
    • Tell them what you’re going to tell them: “I’ll spend 20 minutes outlining my process, leaving 15 minutes for your questions and comments …”
  • If someone in the audience insists on interrupting, stick to your guns:  “Let me finish outlining my process, then your question will make more sense…”  Practice this; you’ll become more witty and charming, always a good thing.

 

Image result for facing an audience