Thursday, April 28, 2016

Why Personal and Political Pivots Are So Problematic

Successful businesses know the advantages of flipping the aphorism “If It Ain’t Broke, Don’t Fix It” to “If It Ain’t Broke, Fix It Anyway.” Management guru Peter Drucker warned, “The enterprise that does not innovate inevitably ages and declines.” People know this, too. The hazards of “resting on your laurels” need no explanation. But changing an organization is one thing – changing ourselves is another.

While many companies have started in one place and ended up in another – morphing through competitive, economic and societal influences – it’s much harder for people to evolve their thinking and behavior. We are who we are, right? We need to stay true to our own character.

And that’s the false choice many of us believe we have to make – that we must somehow abandon who we are in order to change or to accept (or even acknowledge) the views of another. We’re thinking too small if we give in to the mutual exclusivity of “if you’re not with us, you’re against us.”

Sadly, though, many of us take challenges to our positions much too personally. Honest feedback and new ideas may be viewed as disloyal or an attack on one’s core values. This is no more true than in the current political environment. Change is seen as weakness; you’re branded as a flip-flopper. And almost any whiff of compromise attracts a potentially ferocious, ad hominem response.

A New York Times editorial [The Donald Trump Pygmalion Project, April 26, 2016] focused on Donald Trump’s behavior and how “Mr. [Paul] Manafort’s ambition is to turn this Eliza Doolittle into a candidate more acceptable to decent society, in time for the general election.” However, Mr. Trump may not agree. He said, “I sort of don’t like toning it down.”

While Mr. Trump still has time to pivot from fiery agitator to energetic statesman, the Democratic insurgent, Bernie Sanders, missed his chance. An explanation may be found from the insurgent candidate of 2004: Howard Dean. In an NPR interview [Campaign Mystery: Why Don't Bernie Sanders' Big Rallies Lead To Big Wins?, April 26, 2016], he admitted, "I couldn't change. And I knew I had to. But the crowd pulls you back. They're dying for you. They're bleeding for you. And it's very hard to do."

The cheers and accolades from a self-selected audience can be intoxicating; it feeds the ego and induces a craving for more. We don’t want to hear what plays well now may not play well later or with others. It seems obvious but we need the strategic vision and the courage to make the shift or, more dramatically, jump the tracks. Temperament, demeanor and behavior really are big deals in building relationships. It’s also crucial in leadership. Carl von Clausewitz, the brilliant 19th century military strategist, noted it is “…the more all-encompassing than the narrowly focused mind, the cooler rather than the hot-tempered mind that we should more readily entrust in war with the well-being of our brothers and children, and the honor and safety of our country.”

Yes, we should stick to our principles but let’s push back against this noxious atmosphere before it actually becomes the new normal. We’re adaptive creatures, after all, and our massive capacity to learn, grow and relate is being stunted. The political or personal pivot (as long as it’s not pandering) should be viewed as nothing more than our natural – though sometimes tumultuous – progression.

Between blog posts, I invite you to follow me on Twitter @pauloestreicher.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Big Ideas versus Incremental Steps is a False Choice

A key takeaway message being reported from yesterday’s Democratic Town Hall in Iowa is the divide between big ideas and incremental steps. In general, I don’t like mutual exclusivity. (I’ve addressed this before in my book, Camelot, Inc.) Of course we need big ideas and bold moves. But small things can be out-of-the-box and innovative, too. The answer is we need both vision and execution, the large goals and the little objectives, and the short-range and the long-term views.

I know it’s hard for politicians to get elected on a platform of incremental steps. We’re conditioned to expect the big idea, to go big or go home, or to swing for a homerun. But it’s certainly not going to happen with our largest and most complex problems.

This applies beyond our politics and social ills. In the world of medicine, for example, Cy Stein, M.D., Ph.D. and Chair of Medical Oncology at City of Hope Comprehensive Cancer Center said, "One advance leads to another. Although the advance might be incremental, it's a step beyond." And, "If we are only interested in revolutionary therapies, patients will miss out on the improvements in care that smaller advances offer.”

As we approach another Federal election, it’s worthwhile remembering that our Founding Fathers were believers in the proverb “The perfect is the enemy of the good.” Our country is nothing but a timeline of incremental advances. Many in the Continental Congress wanted to abolish slavery, while others insisted it remain.There would be no United States of America unless they could agree. So, the Declaration of Independence in 1776 and the Constitution in 1787 were compromises. They were steps. We had to wait nearly a hundred years for the Emancipation Proclamation and then another hundred for the Civil Rights Act.

Small strides can sometimes add up to a completed marathon. We should embrace and celebrate the completion of each step along the way.

Between blog posts, I invite you to follow me on Twitter @pauloestreicher.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Humor Has Its Place... But Not Here

I've said this often: Be careful with humor in serious times. And what's funny to you may not be funny to someone else. It comes down to knowing your audience and having some compassion.

When Yahoo! CEO Marissa Mayer recently quipped, there will be “no layoffs… this week,” many at the company were reportedly shaken ( With discussion about Yahoo!'s future and potential cuts already in the air, this attempt at humor was particularly unfunny.

There's some history on misreading the audience at the company. When Yahoo!'s work-at-home policy was reversed in 2013, they reported that it was meant to raise morale and increase collaboration. (You can read more here: 

I agree that face-to-face communication is ideal but there's also a need for flexibility to ensure the best people are able to participate in the enterprise, especially in tech where there's great dispersion of talent.

The bottom line is morale or fun can't be forced or mandated. They're outcomes of an honest, communicative and interesting work environment with visible, empathic leadership.

Between blog posts, I invite you to follow me on Twitter @pauloestreicher.

Sunday, January 10, 2016

A Lesson on Staying Focused – With Thanks to a Terrific Teacher

My high school days are well back in the past but some memories remain fresh. Hearing of the passing of my AP US History teacher, David LaPonsee, moves me to relay one of them, even though the lesson learned came at the price of some personal embarrassment.

Dave was brilliant, with multiple degrees from prestigious institutions. He expected a lot from his students but they received much in return. There was a lot of memorization expected but he always created context. The discussions were usually intense and politically-charged.

Beyond academics, he was always available and happy to engage. I can remember spending many hours in Dave’s office discussing current events as well as our work together in student government.

The class was assigned a final paper, which could be on the topic of our choice. With a WWII Army pilot father, I chose to explore the development of the US military from the Depression through the World War. Essentially, the birth of the Superpower.

Even back then, I enjoyed research. The sources – and the tangents – grew rapidly; so many interesting lines of inquiry opened up. Unfortunately, it wasn’t long before I was spending more time exploring the rise of our geopolitical adversaries than I was on my stated topic. The pursuit of knowledge was illuminating but I failed to conduct a reality check. I lost focus.

I handed in my paper, proud of the time and effort that went into its development. When the graded papers where distributed, I looked for my reward. All I found was a note: “Excellent paper but what does this have to do with US history? Please see me.”

Gulp. I wanted to crawl under the desk. I felt so foolish and, worse, I embarrassed myself in front of one of my favorite teachers.

The time soon came to meet with Dave. I explained the trajectory of the writing and he was comforting. Then, he asked what grade I deserved. Wow.

It was years later, when I came to teach strategy, research and communications at NYU, that I’d tell this story semester after semester and convey the lessons of Carl von Clausewitz, the 19th century Prussian General. Focus, he said, “necessitates strict economy.” As strategists, if we do something “here,” it means we’re consciously not doing other things “there.” That episode from my past also prompted me to check in with each student throughout the term to ensure they stayed on track. But it’s not just about focus; it’s the feedback along the way that gives people the information and confidence they need to succeed.

I’ll always be grateful for the time I had with Dave. His intellect and empathy will always be remembered. And I’m happy I’ve been able to pass along some of his lessons, which are now used by the hundreds of students I had the privilege to teach.

Between blog posts, I invite you to follow me on Twitter @pauloestreicher.