Archives: October 2011

Surviving the (Never-Ending) Downturn

In honor of Halloween, we're announcing a mini-ebook called Surviving the (Never-Ending) Downturn. After all, what's scarier than the economy these days? It's available in the iBookstore and is part of our Excellence Now ebook series. As mentioned earlier, we're experimenting with format, and this is a freshly designed short-form ebook of Tom's Recession 46 list.

Happy Halloween!

Green Is Green!

For 10 years, I wrote a syndicated column—"On Excellence"—for the Tribune Media Services. It was carried by over a hundred papers—the flagship carrier was the Chicago Tribune. After Steve Jobs' death, one of my old columns surfaced—on Jobs. It appeared on 8 November 1993, when Steve was still "in the wilderness"—before his subsequently triumphant return to Apple.

Herewith, in full ...

On Excellence

Marathoners call it "hitting the wall." You get to a point where you can't go on. But you do. And, miraculously, you come out the other side and finish the race.

Truth is, damn little of merit, in a profession or a hobby, is accomplished without running through a wall or two.

I got to thinking about that while reading Fortune's recent cover story, "America's Toughest Bosses." Some turn "beet red." Others "scream." Some engage in "sadistic" behavior and use tactics that amount to "psychological oppression." While I hardly countenance "Jack Attacks," the tirades by Jack Connors, head of the ad agency Hill Holliday, I also don't believe the best bosses are sweethearts.

The best leaders take their firms and followers to places they've never been before-and, more important, places they never imagined they would reach. The chief's voice may be subdued or, more likely, strident at times. The reason, Fortune acknowledges, is the incredible demands these honchos place, first and foremost, on themselves.

Take Steve Jobs, one of Fortune's seven nasties. I've seen him, in his days at Apple, lose his cool on occasion. Not a particularly pretty sight.

Yet I was thoroughly taken aback by one of Jobs' "excesses," as chronicled by Fortune. A subordinate at Next Computer was showing Jobs shades of green for the company's logo. More precisely, she produced some 37 shades of green before coming upon one that pleased the master. "Oh, come on," the minion recalled thinking, "green is green."

Oh, no, it isn't!

Almost every step Jobs took at Apple (and Next) broke the mold; moreover, it defied industry tradition as set by the all-powerful, undisputed master of the universe (IBM). To say Jobs was fighting an uphill battle is to suggest that Charles Lindbergh's historic flight across the Atlantic was "challenging." Jobs was reviled and ridiculed. Yet he reinvented the computer world, in a way that makes Bill Gates' more recent contributions at Microsoft seem meager by comparison.

How did Jobs do it? By worrying about which shade of green was "right." He triumphed with the Apple II. Then the Macintosh. It was precisely his stratospheric standards ("insanely great" was a common Jobsism in days past) that allowed him and his enormously spirited teams to push past the existing frontier time and time again.

No, sir. Green is not green. Not if you're reinventing the planet. Which is not to applaud his tirades. But it is to suggest that for every disaffected Apple or Next employee burned by Jobs, there are probably 10 who by age 28 achieved Neil Armstrong-like lifetime highs at his side. Perhaps the bitterness of some stems from the subliminal realization they'll never soar so high again. It's a nightmare for a 28-year-old software designer, just as it is for 30-year-old Michael Jordan.

My two best bosses were my two toughest bosses. Neither was a screamer, although one came reasonably close. Both practiced psychological terrorism-though neither knew he was doing so.

Both set mercilessly high standards for themselves. And neither believed in barriers to achievement, including acts of God (which were seen simply as opportunities to demonstrate one's mettle as never before).

Both sent me home screaming. I recall literally a year of just about non-stop headaches in one case.

It doesn't jibe with the perfectly balanced life. But I'll tell you, I learned more, faster, from these two than ever before or since.

The perfect boss is, of course, aware of individual differences and knows exactly how far to push each individual to "attain maximum performance," or some such ideal.

Except I very much doubt bosses like that exist. Those with shockingly high standards undoubtedly cause casualties among their followers. Yet without these outrageous pioneers, we wouldn't get anywhere.

Am I callous? Yes and no. To countenance, under any circumstances, the infliction of pain is callous. But to fail to understand that no epic bridge or dam has ever been built, or fighter aircraft tested, without casualties is to fail to comprehend the real world of high-performance anything.

Fortune quotes experts who say these executive thugs suffer from low self-awareness. I'm sure that's true, and perhaps the toughies would benefit from counseling by a trusted peer (unlikely) or elder (slightly more likely) who would clue them in on the havoc they've left in their wake.

But, let's face it. If these chiefs were thoroughly self-aware they would probably not realize how insane (literally) their towering quests are. And the world would be a poorer place for it.

Special Presentations

In the recent past, we've offered up posts on "GREAT Professional Service Firms" and "The Adaptive Organization." Here they are again, in PowerPoint format, for your convenience:

The Adaptive Organization
GREAT Professional Service Firms

(Or, rather, STEAL—that's the whole point.)


Tom is speaking today in Las Vegas to the International Sanitary Supply Association Trade Show and Educational Conference.

ISSA/INTERCLEAN North America, 20 October 2011

Tom on Baseball Management for the Washington Post

The Washington Post asked Tom his opinion about who the best manager in baseball is. As usual, Tom supplies an unexpected answer.

From Terry Francona to Tony La Russa, why there's no such thing as the best manager in baseball

Apache Corporation

Tom is in Dallas, speaking at the Apache Corporation's 2012 Strategic Planning Conference. (And as winter creeps up on Vermont, enjoying the Texas heat and gobbling up Rangers' World Series gear, he tells us.)

Apache Corporation, Final, 18 October 2011
Apache Corp, Long Version, 18 October 2011

Skill/Goal #1:
“Adaptive” Organizations


There is a lot of talk about "adaptive organizations," as there should be. In these perilous and fast-changing times, adaptivity is arguably Skill/Goal #1—and the bones of those, old and young, who failed to adapt litter the landscape.

Books can be and have been and will be written about the topic. Dozens of 'em. But I want to pound a stake into the ground. I doubtless wildly over-simplify, but I insist that there is a one-variable answer to the adaptivity issue—moreover, treatment of that variable is "the" answer to this conundrum and it has been with us, unchanged, for eons. It has been the determining success-fail, life-death factor for companies and armies alike.

In short: Adaptivity is more or less a 100% function of the workforce and how it is recruited and developed and encouraged and appreciated—or not.

Adaptive organizations will have workforces which ...

*Are hired for attitude and character and proven teamwork as much or more than for skill
*Are respected and trusted and visibly appreciated and celebrated
*Are in on pretty much everything in an environment of information sharing and transparency
*Are trained and re-trained ad infinitum—you can, in effect, never spend too much time or money on training and re-training
*Treat "learning new stuff"—each and every day—as a near holy responsibility
*Believe that every one of us and every outsider has something worthy to teach us
*Are routinely exposed to an "insane" variety of outsiders who offer constant stimulation and direct challenges to conventional organizational/marketplace wisdom
*Are given the autonomy (with concomitant accountability) to and encouragement to "try it," almost any "it," at the drop of a hat—and then try it and try it again and again
*Are guaranteed that "useful failures" are cheered rather than jeered
*Are bound by a coda that shouts "good enough is never good enough"
*Are all "dreamers with deadlines," committed to pursuit of the novel and disruptive—and equally committed to flawless and timely execution
*Laugh a lot at themselves and their foibles and pratfalls
*Are, while civil to a fault, irreverent about damn near anything other than integrity and decency
*Are responsible for each other's mentoring and growth
*Believe that their role—each and everyone—is to serve, to serve each other and to serve each member of our family of organizations (vendors, customers, communities, etc.)
*Are diverse to a fault—not legalistically diverse, but from every background imaginable
*Are insistent that each and every one is treated as an utterly indispensable member
of the team—there are no bit players
*Relentlessly pursue no less than EXCELLENCE in all we do, in tough times even more than in times of economic good health

And that's it!
(Or some list more or less like this.)

Of course the above requires inspired leadership which truly puts people first.

Bottom line: If the workforce encapsulates the above ideas—adaptivity will be virtually automatic and a walk in the park.* (*Of course it won't be any such thing—but presumably you get the drift.)

FYI/I repeat: This is an incredibly un-new idea. (It's achievement is, alas, exceedingly unusual—but it has unmistakably been "the secret" for ages.)

Translation (if I was unclear):

A soaring vision is desirable.
An effective strategy is important.
Super-processes are a necessity.

But in the end, it's all about ... THE PEOPLE!*

*It's ALWAYS all about ... THE PEOPLE!

[Ed. This blog is also available as a PDF: "Adaptive" Organizations.]

(Above and below, taking trip #1 in my new 12-foot Vermont Packboat amidst fall foliage on Lake St. Catherine. Photo courtesy Susan Sargent; boat designed and built by Adirondack Guideboat, North Ferrisburgh VT.)


TLBT Video #69
Brand You: To-Don’t List

The latest in the The Little BIG Things Video Series is now at YouTube. Watch it to see Tom explain that a must for executives and business managers of all kinds to supplement the "To-Do" list is the "To-Don't" list.

You can find the video in the right-hand column of our front page, or watch it here (Time: 2 minutes 27 seconds). Also available, a PDF transcript of the video's content: Brand You: To-Don't List.

Forget Overnight Success and Learn to Be Persistent

(This is a guest post from Alexandra Levit, whose new book, Blind Spots: The 10 Business Myths You Can't Afford to Believe on Your New Path to Success, is released today. She is Money Magazine's 2010 Online Career Expert of the Year and a winner of Forbes' 2011 Best Websites for Women. She interviewed Tom, and he invited her to submit this post.)

Forget Overnight Success and Learn to Be Persistent

Overnight success is one of the most widely held beliefs in the business world. It's also hugely misleading, and adopting this idea that you can easily become an overnight success could actually be quite damaging for your career and life. The truth is simple. There are very few—if any—genuine cases of overnight success. The majority of successful people have dedicated themselves to a goal and persevered for a long time before reaching a high level of achievement that is finally noticed and talked about by others.

Perseverance is defined as remaining constant to a purpose, idea, or task in spite of obstacles. Some people are born with the tendency to persevere. In fact, I can already see it in my young son. He likes to push his wagon around our backyard, but he doesn't always have enough strength and control to move it where he wants it to go. However, instead of giving up and crying, he faithfully pushes at the wagon from different angles until it's free of the tree or fence.

Pick up any one of Horatio Alger's rags-to-riches stories, and you'll be virtually hit over the head with the lesson that earlier generations didn't expect instant gratification the way we do today. If they had, we wouldn't have had the opportunity to evolve as fully as a society, with the most critical cultural and technological advances marinating over decades. We've become a society of now, now, now, but the truth is that most things worth having take a little bit of process and a lot of time. You shouldn't assume that if something doesn't manifest overnight that it won't happen at all, and, in fact, you will do wonders for your personal development if you can learn to be patient, maintain faith in your own potential, and increase your perseverance in driving important aspects of your career forward.

While it admittedly sounds a bit corny, the first step in this journey is to believe in yourself and what you want to do. If you try for a goal, but in the back of your mind you don't actually think you can accomplish it, you will wreck havoc on and sabotage your motivation. You will probably give up more easily, which will result in even poorer self-esteem. If you're like me and believing in yourself is sometimes challenging, you might talk to family members, friends, a psychologist, or a coach to address your doubts and insecurities head on.

Self-awareness is a critical part of developing perseverance. Admitting that you're the type to give up on a goal before you've completed it is the first step in changing that pattern. Then, practice keeping promises to yourself by setting small goals and refusing to quit until you've achieved them.

Another component is self-control. And how do you improve that? As John Tierney reported in the New York Times in 2008, research from University of Miami psychologists Michael McCullough and David Willoughby concludes that finding your religion may be the right move, since religiosity is correlated with higher self-control. Brain scans show that when people pray, the parts of the brain responsible for self-regulation and control of attention and emotion get a major workout. If you tend toward the agnostic, you can still get the self-control benefit by meditating privately or by getting involved with an organization that shares your values.

The final component in enhancing your perseverance is to think positively. Because you're human and not a cartoon character, it is difficult to have a positive attitude 100 percent of the time. When something unfortunate occurs, it's natural to feel negative emotions like anger, frustration, and sadness at first. But holding on to these until they result in constant depression and anxiety will make it all that much harder to persevere at a difficult goal.

(Read more about the book Blind Spots at and see Alexandra's blog at