Musings from George

March Madness, Kentucky Derby, and Engaged Employees
April 10, 2008, 11:33 am
Filed under: Uncategorized

Crushed this year, I’m afraid. The upsets came against teams I was counting on, including Duke and UCLA. I’m not sure yet whether the lessons I learned from the stock market (that the companies you know the best are the ones you will bet wrong on most frequently) apply to basketball too… in which case I really should diversify into the Davidsons of the world.

I’m going to the Kentucky Derby with some close friends, and I am very excited about the trip and the event. It’s been on my informal “do before you die” list, which I think I first read about in an airline magazine twenty years ago — making a list of stretch targets that can now include going into space (not on my list) or visiting Iguazu Falls (on my list) or the Galapagos Islands (on the list too). Researching the leading candidates this year made my to-do list recently, when I read that there is a strong favorite. Those are the horse races worth betting on, and the best bet is a strong favorite with a dark horse partner on an exacta bet. If you’ve never been to see the horses race live, put it on _your_ life’s list.

Now for a non-sequitir… so much energy in American business goes into attracting the best talent. We have an entire industry of headhunters, recruiters, salary-setters, referral networks. Yet once an employee joins a company, all of this is irrelevant — what do we do to motivate the employees, what do we do to encourage them to care about the company and the customers, and how do we keep them mentally and emotionally engaged in the company’s work? THAT is the challenge of leadership. I once had the chance to speak one-on-one with Jeff Bezos, before he was either rich or famous (on his way there, having just founded Amazon up in Seattle). He said something that resonated with me and stuck with me — that communication within a company is an expensive necessity, and needed to be managed thoughtfully. Trying to get wide-spread agreement on issues takes too long and costs too much, but NOT having wide-spread understanding of the business objectives can be crippling and counter-productive. As a result, we see companies spending vast amounts of time and money trying to simplify the message (the dread “vision statement”) or standardizing on some simplistic message (the dread “core values”). The reality is that clear-spoken leaders can get a group of very disparate talents (think soldiers, storming a beach) to do the impossible — but the goal has to be clear, the acceptable ways of getting there have to be clear, and the team has to understand that they all get there together — not by climbing over each other, or making someone else slower in the process. Everyone falls back on sports metaphors or war metaphors, both of which are too simplistic because they are (1) time-bound or (2) life-threatening. Work is neither.

So I’ll resolve to be less loyal to college basketball teams next year, diligent in my research on the three-year-olds for May, and clear and well-spoken in my leadership at my company. Wish me luck :^)