Tag Archives: entrepreneurs

Don’t Let Fear Be Your Excuse

I had lunch recently with my friends Jane and Larry Graham. Their granddaughter Caroline Richards died in January from osteocarcenoma, a rare form of bone cancer.  She was 12 years old. Caroline was a sunny day kind of child: She favored dancing over walking and singing over whispering.  She had over 30,000 followers on Twitter. She embraced her disease by giving people presents, making them laugh, and celebrating her favorite pop band One Direction. Caroline refused to forfeit her time to fear, self-pity or regret.

Caroline Richards faced a rare form of cancer by refusing to let fear and pain rob her of joy.

Caroline Richards faced a rare form of cancer by refusing to let fear and pain rob her of joy.

I’ve thought of Caroline many times since the Saturday afternoon I squeezed into her funeral, a standing-room only affair packed with people of all ages and walks of life, many of whom had big bows in their hair like the kind Caroline wore – when she had hair. There was dancing in the aisles and a great deal of singing to honor Caroline’s philosophy: If life throws you a bum rap, put a bow on it and throw a party.

Easier said than done, we say. Some of us are tragedians; we tend to look at the quieter, sad aspect of life. But the lesson Caroline leaves us is to not be undone by mere predisposition. No indeed. Do not let fear be the excuse.

Most of us are blessed. We don’t face major life-and-death situations.  But fear is an insidious life-stealer.  Ever since I can remember I’ve suffered from paralyzing stage fright. I have a vivid memory of standing in front of my eighth grade speech class and leaning on a chair because my knees were shaking so hard. Stints in community theater and Toastmasters have alleviated it, but I’m still terrified when I face an audience. My task is to prepare, open my mouth and say my piece. Telephone calls have always had the same effect on me, an odd twist for someone in my profession.

Caroline's Brave Bunny Foundation awards a children who show exceptional courage with this bunny.

Caroline’s Brave Bunny Foundation recognizes children who show courage.

Caroline’s mother, Lauren, gets it. Caroline didn’t live to do what she’d wanted to do, help raise money as an ambassador for research to help save other children from the cancer that caused her so much suffering.  So her mom has taken the bull by the horns in Caroline’s honor. Lauren is starting the Caroline’s Brave Bunny Foundation that, among other things, awards a (stuffed) bunny to children who show their own particular brand of courage.

The award — a bunny with “Brave” embroidered on one ear and the child’s name on the other — recognizes courage, not winning. The victory lies in moving through the fear, be it finishing school, or mastering a particular skill. Whatever it may be. Fear is a very personal crippler.

So remember Caroline and the Brave Bunny next time you pick up the phone to make that cold call. Or take a job you don’t think you can do. Scale your guts, and think about the time you have on this planet. Let’s not let fear be our excuse.

Small Successes

I’ve been thinking a lot about small successes.  The ones that encourage us to take the next step. It all started when a group of friends and I took in a dog whose owner, also a friend, died. A trainer recommended rotating the dog, Indie, through four foster homes over a month’s time. The goal was to make her more confident.  I’m not sure if she went into shock or truly became more adaptable, but by the end of the month, she seemed ready for anything.

Or maybe she just figured out that whatever it was she feared losing wasn’t worth it.

It’s become very popular to tout innovation and risk taking, but Indie’s experience seems to be the case more frequently than not. We take one step, a project, a cold call, a blog post. It doesn’t kill us, so we try another.  As time passes, we get bigger, hopefully in our hearts as well as our ambitions. Somehow it all works out, though maybe not as we planned. But hey, that can be good. Remember the Post It?

Orphan cattle dog Indie's experience showed me that small successes change us for the better.

Orphan cattle dog Indie’s experience showed me that small successes change us for the better.

Most useful was the push back I received from people who thought we were doing the wrong thing.  After all, it’s very possible she would have arrived at the same point had she been in one, much less confusing, spot.

But the passionate people brought to their protest drove me nuts. I had to go back to Eisenhower’s famous back-up note he crafted as a statement should the D-Day landing have failed (yes, a bit dramatic but whenever you can call on greatness, do it!)

“Our landings in the Cherbourg-Havre area have failed to gain a satisfactory foothold and I have withdrawn the troops. My decision to attack at this time and place was based upon the best information available. The troops, the air and the Navy did all that Bravery and devotion to duty could do. If any blame or fault attaches to the attempt it is mine alone.”

Back to Indie. She’s still an orphan. Cattle dogs aren’t trendy these days.  Loyal, attentive, protective, they have their faults. But also their strengths: absolute devotion to their owners, the ability to break away from a momentum (eating, growling at another dog) to attend to their person. In other words, they’re imperfect, just like us.  So I know she’ll keep trying.

Beyond Work Hard/Play Hard: Building a Resilient Culture

The most surprising aspect of a SXSW Interactive workshop on corporate culture was how few people showed up and participated.  “Beyond Ping Pong Tables: Building Better Companies” was by far the best discussion of that behavioral petri-dish we call culture I’ve ever attended.  Led by a fascinating leadership trio, it condensed experience from the nonprofit, Wall Street, entrepreneurial and corporate worlds:

  • Jessica Lawrence, executive director of the New York Tech Meetup
  • Rasanth Das, co-founder, Bhakti Center (and former Wall Street banker)
  • Vipin Goyal, founder and CEO, SideTour (and former McKinsey consultant)

    More than work hard/play hard:  Culture is a major success factor. Be intentional in cultivating it.

    Culture is a major organizational success factor. Be intentional in cultivating it.

The takeaway:  Each of us is a culture cop. Culture is everybody’s business. . Our values model our behavior, which shapes our culture.  It starts with the CEO, but everybody else is part of the  check and balance.

All too often this becomes a cult of CEO’s personality.  Vibrant organizations understand this and intentionally transform this misplaced focus on externals into an organization-wide investment in the values that shape people’s behavior.

Casual cultures break down under pressure, as do dysfunctional ones.  I’ve learned this the hard way first, as a veteran of IBM’s implosion in the 90’s, during the start up bust of the early 2000’s and again with a small agency.  Warning:  Disintegrating cultures are very painful and lead to their own form of PTSD.  Practical tips from Lawrence, Das and Goyal:

Hire for culture over competence; ask candidates:

            • What books are you reading?
            • What was the last thing you googled?
            • What do you watch on TV/movies?

Think of the employee handbook as an articulation of corporate culture:

  • Considering a new job?  Ask to read the handbook.
  • Check for vacation guidelines, maternity/paternity leave, and gauge it against your values
  • How does the physical space allow for interaction, concentration or lack of both?  Does it offer multiple functional spaces?  Common spaces for accidental intersections?

The hardest:  Spend time talking about culture. It may be your biggest success factor:

  • Sacred cow bbq, where people list their nonnegotiables on post-its, prioritize and distill them into a list of values.
  • Write a corporate obituary, what do you want customers, employees to remember?

Food for thought – and action.