Silicon Valley State of Mind, a blog by John Weathington, "The Science of Success"
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Silicon Valley State of Mind

Tips, thoughts, and advice based on the consulting work of John Weathington, "The Science of Success."

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Leadership is all about knowing where to go and making the right decisions to get you there. It's unequivocally the most important competence an organization can develop. The wrong leadership can lead an otherwise great company into runis; whereas great leadership can pull even an average organization out of a nose-dive. Here are my tips, tricks, and advice for being a great leader.

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Do happy employees create successful organizations? Well, according to Glassdoor, the happiest companies in Silicon Valley are:

  1. Facebook
  2. Google
  3. LinkedIn
  4. Apple
  5. Informatica
  6. Shutterfly
  7. NetApp

After scanning this list, I’d say these companies are pretty successful. And although it’s debatable which came first—success or happy employees—most of the extant literature on organizational development confirms the great contribution that happy employees make to successful companies. Personally, I’ve worked with many companies over my illustrious career as a consultant, and I can attest that I’ve made far more valuable contributions to companies when I was having fun.

Happiness works differently for various people; however, I can give you some insights when it comes to analytics: data scientists, analysts, and most IT professionals:

Smart people like working with other smart people.

I had lunch last week with Sridhar, a good friend of mine who currently manages a team of IT professionals at StubHub. We were previously partners in crime at Hitachi Data Systems and together we solved some of its difficult challenges. At one point during the lunch he said, “I just like solving problems with other smart people.” The comment struck a chord with me that stayed for a while.

It was harmonious with a discussion I had earlier with Jennifer Selby Long, a brilliant management consultant who develops leaders. Jennifer and I are looking to pair up on an estimable intervention at a local telecommunications company. At one point while working through the proposal she said, “This one may be tough, but I just love working on difficult problems with other smart people.”

Of course there are other factors that contribute to employee happiness; however, for smart people, this is an important one. Make sure to surround your smartest people with other smart people. Oh—and a huge salary doesn’t hurt either.

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I had power issues again this weekend. No, I wasn’t suffering through one of San Ramon’s infamous blackouts, this time I was dealing with the power in my car—the battery was dead. And, unfortunately, the battery charger was no help this time, because the battery was completely dead—flatlined. This happened because nobody drives that car, and as you may know, a car that stays idle for too long will have performance problems when you call on it to work. The same is true for data scientists on your big data team—you must keep them busy solving important problems.

First of all, data scientists are very expensive resources, so it’s just irresponsible to hire a few, just to have them watering the plants while you figure out what you want to do with them. More importantly, idle data scientists need to stay busy with challenging and exciting work, or they’ll lose enthusiasm for what you’re trying to accomplish. And if this period of inactivity is extended, it’s hard to engender urgency when it’s time to get serious.

This is a bigger responsibility than you might expect. It’s common for me to see idle data scientists while the leadership struggles to get their plans in place. This is a very bad situation. Thoroughbred horses are bred to run, and if you don’t keep them moving, they’ll lose their edge. Data scientists are a particular breed of analyst—not unlike a thoroughbred. Some business analysts are okay with just a moderate amount of activity, but data scientists thrive on solving problems, and get distracted and demoralized when they don’t have a big problem to solve. In the same way you must keep a thoroughbred moving, or a car running, you must keep a data scientist analyzing, or they’ll lose their edge.

The only thing left to do with my car this weekend was to call AAA and have them replace the battery. You don’t want to get into a situation where your big data’s power source needs to be replaced. Make sure they always have something important to do.

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We planted some beautiful Hibiscuses (Hibisci?) earlier this year and with the amazing spring that we are experiencing here in Silicon Valley, the blooms are just enchanting. As a Hawaiian, these flowers have a special meaning for me—they are the state flower of Hawaii (okay, the state flower of Hawaii is actually the Yellow Hibiscus, but these are close enough). Now, when I step outside, I’m often transported to my favorite spot on on Waikiki beach, the house in Pearl City where I lived with my family as a teen, or the beautiful grounds of the Hyatt in Maui where my wife and I were married. This all comes from a simple flower. Symbols have the power to be transcendent in the message they convey to your big data strategy team.

Symbols are objects, acts, or events that convey a special meaning. I was talking with a colleague yesterday who did some consulting for Apple, and she mentioned that contractors and consultants had badges with muted, grey apples; whereas, all the employees had bright, colorful apples. This and other rituals made her feel like an outsider.

Along with rituals, stories, and the infamous grapevine; symbols are a component of your organization’s informal system. Your informal system exists whether you like it or not and has greater power than your formal system (e.g. mission, vision, stated policies) to influence the people in your organization.

As a leader, the most important thing you can communicate to your big data strategy team—both formally and informally—is your support. What symbols do you have in place for this? Here are some questions to help you figure that out:

  • Do you hand out special awards to them?
  • Do you have special ceremonies for them?
  • When they walk around campus is their status on the big data strategy team conspicuous and respected?
  • Does your office layout make you accessible?
  • Do they feel comfortable approaching you for help?

The symbolism in your company is working for you or against you. It’s up to you to figure out which force is in play and make adjustments if necessary.

So, while you do that, I’ll take some time to smell the … Hibiscus.


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If you’re invested in gold, you may be experiencing a bit of anxiety. The precipice gold fell off this month makes the fiscal cliff look like a street curb. At the beginning of the month, an ounce of gold was worth about $1,600, and now it’s struggling to stay above $1,400. That’s a tough reality for someone who was recently worried about the US dollar and turned to gold for a safe place to invest. Unfortunately, there are a lot of people investing in gold based on sophistic reasoning. It’s important to check with trusted advisors before making important decisions.

The dirty truth is that people in the inside think most gold investors are pretty ignorant. They’re saying that dumb money is pushing up the price of gold—and I believe they’re right. Although common lore says that gold is a good investment to hedge against the US dollar, it’s a trading instrument that works like anything else. When gold is popular—for whatever reason—people buy it and the price goes up. When people get scared, they sell their gold, and the price goes down. If a lot of people get scared at the same time, they all sell at the same time, and the price plummets. This is what happened a few days ago.

The key here is that most financial analysts knew this—the joke is on the gold investor who didn’t know better. It’s important to surround yourself with trusted experts and turn to them before you make any big moves. Otherwise, you might end up holding fool’s gold.

Tagged in: experts leadership trust
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It’s Sunday night and I’m relaxing with Kim: indulging on our favorite weekend past-time—reality TV. My new favorite reality show is Bar Rescue. If you watch Bar Rescue and you know anything about me, that shouldn’t come as a big surprise. Bar Rescue features Jon Taffer, a veteran in the nightclub and bar industry, who specializes in turning around bars in a nosedive. Each episode chronicles Taffer’s attempt to save a bar that’s heading for disaster. Here are 9 things I love about Taffer and his approach:

  1. Taffer uses both bar science and common sense in his interventions.

  2. Taffer doesn’t intervene until the bar owner asks him for help.

  3. Taffer always starts by observing the situation with his own eyes.

  4. Taffer has been involved in hundreds and hundreds of bar ventures—experience matters.

  5. Taffer delivers the brutally honest truth at every turn.

  6. Taffer genuinely cares about improving each owner’s bar and it’s conspicuously authentic.

  7. Taffer brings in other specialists after he understands the bar’s salient challenges.

  8. Taffer stands his ground with his recommendations, regardless of the owner’s receptivity to his ideas.

  9. Taffer continues to measure the bar’s performance for several months after his intervention is complete.

Jon Taffer’s a real pro—there’s a lot to learn here.

Okay—now back to the mob wives reunion.

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A few hours in Fry’s Electronics gives me powers beyond belief. I spent the whole day yesterday meeting with clients in Campbell and Sunnyvale. An unexpected call at around 4:00 PM put me on the 880 Freeway at around 5:00 PM when it’s in parking lot status. After inching my way to Mission Boulevard, I decided to stop off at Fry’s Electronics—my Fortress of Solitude. I entered tired and weary from a long day of meetings and emerged with the vigor to conquer Mount Everest (okay, maybe I’ll start with Mount Diablo). Burnout drains talent; understanding how to recharge your analytic team is vital to getting the most from them—both in productivity and loyalty.

Like most analytics, I’m an introvert (INFJ for those who understand what this means). If you lead and/or manage a team of analytics, it’s important to understand how introverts work. There are many misconceptions. Contrary to popular belief, introverts like being in social settings, have no problem voicing their opinion, typically have a great sense of humor, and can be very fun to hang out with.

The accurate distinction between introverts and extroverts is where their locus of energy lies. Introverts revitalize when they’re alone. They’ll function fine in a social setting; however, their battery is draining quicker than extroverts. If you put them in meetings all day or extended team-building exercises, they will quickly burn out.

To protect your analytic team from burnout, schedule downtime for them: especially on the heels of extended and extensive social interaction. A field trip to Fry’s Electronics from time to time might not be a bad idea either.

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Are you getting enough iron in your leadership diet? In deference to the recently departed, and former UK Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, I’d like to address leading with an iron fist. Thatcher personified this idea so well, she leaves behind a legacy of being the “Iron Lady.” Forget about individual body parts, to many her whole being was iron! She’s known and remembered for her convictions—something that I see critically absent in today’s leadership.

I blame the sociologists who study leadership for this phenomenon. The recent trend in leadership is servant leadership where leaders are advised to become a servant to their followers. It’s especially rampant out here in Silicon Valley, where nothing gets decided until everyone—including the janitor—is okay with the decision. This is nonsense. Not only does it take way too much time, but it’s simply not effective.

If you need to make a decision, you don’t need a committee or a Kumbayah session with your group. Just get some good information. Information can help you stay your ground when your convictions are being challenged. Many times analysis contradicts conventional wisdom, allowing you to draw insightful but controversial assumptions. If your hunch is validated by data analysis, many naysayers will just refute your analysis—it’s not for them, it’s for you. You must believe in your decisions—and that takes more than analysis—but it’s comforting to know that the data is on your side.

If you’re under fire for your beliefs—don’t fold, just get some good information. You don’t need to become the Iron Lady; a fist or two will work in a crunch.

—Rest in peace Prime Minister Thatcher and thank you for showing us how to fight for what we believe.

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My trees this morning are filled with little men in fluorescent jackets. Fall is right around the corner, and the huge oak trees on our property will soon start dumping leaves and nuts in our pool creating a huge mess. It’s been a few years since we’ve done anything with the trees, so a tree intervention is required. In times like this, I turn to a specialist—no questions asked. If you forgo the services of a specialist when one is required, you do far more damage than good.

As I see it, I have a number of options, I could:

  • Do nothing,
  • Try to do it myself,
  • Try to find cheap labor,
  • Try to find a new specialist,
  • Use my friend, who is a tree specialist that has done great work for me in the past.

I’m sure you can guess which route I took. If I do nothing, the pool will soon be filled with leaves and acorns, and next year the problem will be worse. I’m not inclined to do it myself because I don’t know anything about trimming trees, and there’s nothing about my life strategy that involves building a competence in tree trimming. There are two problems with cheap labor: they probably don’t have insurance so the risk is too high, and they don’t know enough about tree trimming to ensure my objectives are met. If I didn’t already have a relationship with a tree specialist, I would probably look for one. I’m not about to let the problem continue, kill myself by falling from an oak tree, or fight a personal injury lawsuit.

Leaders face decisions like this all the time—and often make bad choices, typically guided by a short-term purview. They either ignore problems that need to be addressed; try to solve problems in-house when they have no competence, experience, or strategic alignment; or pursue a shortcut at a lower price. In all three cases, the result is an unnecessary, estimable cacophony that wastes both time and money.

If you extend your purview a bit, and focus on value instead of cost, making good decisions in this situation are easier. If you need a specialist—hire a specialist. It’s really that simple. The last thing you need is detritus floating around in your waters.

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Details on the much anticipated iPhone 5 were released yesterday—a much anticipated State of the Union by Tim Cook, the highly scrutinized successor to Steve Jobs, who was one of the most visionary leaders the world has ever seen. Since Jobs’ passing last year, many have been closely watching to see if Cook can fill Jobs’ shoes. I feel yesterday marked his chance at a real first impression of his leadership, and I regretfully admit, I’m not impressed. There are not too many pivotal moments in a leader’s career; when they come around you must seize the opportunity, not fizzle it away.

Cook gets a pass on the iPhone 4s; to me, this was a dot release that basically glided on the vision of Jobs. Some might argue that the iPhone 5 is at least in part propelled by Jobs’ petroleum; however, in the iPhone 5 release, I’m already noticing signs of a product that was released by a COO, rather than a CEO. Much of the buzz on the iPhone 5 was about a slimmer design, a bigger screen, and a faster processor. And, it seems the new iPhone 5 can plug into the LTE network, which may open up its use to a broader audience. These are nice features, but that’s about the most I can say. Where are the earth-shaking benefits Apple is known for? The iPhone 4 changed my life; now the iPhone 5 makes it a little easier. For the first major release since Jobs’ passing, Cook really needed to come out stronger than this.

It’s not like Cook didn’t have the chance, and his competitors are having his lunch. Cook decided to focus on slimmer design, while many new smartphones (BlackBerry, Android, Motorola) have already released near-field communication capabilities, which drives mobile payments. Cook decided to focus on a bigger screen when the same competitors are exploring advanced biometric security like face recognition.

I refuse to believe that Apple can’t follow an amazing release with another amazing release. It may be too early to judge, but the Jobs Factor is what brought Apple back, and if Cook and the new Apple can’t invoke that mojo, they’ll be in trouble.

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Now that both the Republican and Democratic National Conventions are over, we’ve had a chance to hear both sides talk about what’s on their mind. To me, it seems like both sides are focused on the incumbent leader, President Barack Obama. The Democrats are focused on how President Obama can further strengthen the nation by proceeding with his political approach. The Republicans are focused on preventing President Obama from further damaging the nation by proceeding with his political approach. I think there’s an overall consensus on the objective of strengthening the nation; however, there’s an overall disagreement on whether or not the alternative that Obama has promoted since he started running for office, will eventually lead us there. Politics aside, from a leadership standpoint, the Democrats have it right, and the Republicans have it wrong—it’s a crime of leadership to focus on what won’t work, especially if you’re passionate of your convictions.

I can’t understand why the political strategists on the right would expend so much political passion on attacking the left. A more effective strategy would involve a constructive review of what happened in the last four years, followed by a candid discussion with the American public about how, if elected into office, they would build on what went right, and improve the areas that fell short.

What you focus on matters: in strategy, in projects, and in everyday activities. Focusing on avoiding what you don’t want, counterintuitively puts your tropism in the wrong direction. After a magnet has pushed away from it’s polar equivalent, where is it left to go? If there’s no attraction to a polar opposite, it goes nowhere.

That’s why a strategic vision is so important; if done right, it tightly focuses you on where you want to go. You should do the same with your critical programs, projects, and processes. And once you get clear on your vision and need to communicate it to your organization, hire Bill Clinton to deliver the message—what an amazing speech, huh?

Now, I’m off to focus on having a great weekend. I hope you have one too!

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I visited my bank’s website recently, and was greeted with a sparkling new home page. They really upgraded their look with fancy graphics, and more advanced web technologies. The interface is clean and inviting, without changing the base functionality: a good refactoring practice. Unfortunately, it only took one click to get back to the same tired design they had 10 years ago. Whoever said first impressions are lasting impressions missed the mark for leaders.

Now my bank has disappointed me in the real and online world. Going through the effort of simply updating your home page is like putting a Biltmore hat on a valor suit. If you look at this blog or my corporate website, the design is consistent through and through. As you travel through my website, it reinforces what you’ve been introduced to on my home page, providing increased levels of depth and understanding. In one click, instead of navigating to a stale, out-of-date annex, you have access to a free article on strategy or innovation. And, as you deal with me as a consultant, you’ll find even more depth and breadth of knowledge than you find in my website, blog, and press kit.

This is the way people should discover you as a leader. You must be a leader from the inside out. Anyone can see through a brilliant exterior covering up a shallow, indecisive dolt. Although it’s important to follow Henry Ford’s lead and surround yourself with intelligent people; they’re there to support you, not compensate for your lack of leadership. When I consulted for Sun, I knew a front-line manager that made all the decisions a Vice President couldn’t make. I never talked to the Vice President—I didn’t need to.

Take proactive measures to invest in your decisiveness, charisma, and self-esteem. To play at the top of your game, hang out with other great leaders and hire a coach. True leaders have a magnetic personality to match their magnetic appearance. Don’t throw out the hat—you still need it. Just make sure your head’s straight before you put it on.

Picture Source: Biltmore Hats

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In a perfect world, a leader inspires people into action. In the real world, you need to be tough: not all the time, but when it’s necessary. If you’re worried that things aren’t happening fast enough, and you’ve tried the motivational route, you may want to take off the velvet glove and break out the iron fist.

When I was young, John Waite released a popular song called “Mr. Wonderful,” where he sings about someone who’s just fed up with being nice. I don’t think leaders get to that point with their organization, but they do get frustrated and confused: frustrated because things aren’t going in the direction they want, and confused because there’s been plenty of communication going out, but the troops just aren’t rallying.

I’m not against the humanistic movement in leadership, but I think it caused a lot of weak leaders. The higher up in an organization someone goes, the more political they feel they need to be. Politicians carefully guard their exterior, paying close attention to how they appear to the public. The Republican National Convention is opening next week in Tampa with Ann Romney instead of Mitt because they feel she can add a softer side to the campaign. I agree, I don’t think Mitt has done a good enough job connecting with voters, and that will hurt him in the upcoming election.

However, this level of spin-surgery will backfire for a leader in Organizational America. To a large extent you must connect with the people of your organization, but you are also responsible for results, which you don’t always get by being the nice guy. I’ve had many organizations hire me to be the iron fist because they don’t want to get blood on their hands. I appreciate the business, but this is silly. As a leader, you are responsible for making (sometimes unpopular) decisions and holding people accountable. Both of these things are unpleasant at times, but if your magnetic personality isn’t winning them over, that’s the only way to get things done.

Don’t worry so much about your employees’ vote of approval. You’re not running for office, you’re running an organization.

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Alaska Airlines finally apologized to the disabled gentleman they refused to help board their plane so he could visit his daughter in Washington. Apparently a man with Parkinson’s disease seemed disoriented at the gate (funny how that works), and nobody from Alaska/Horizon Airlines would help him—even when a concerned onlooker tried to intercede by appealing first to the professionalism of the airline staff, then to the basic humanity. In spite of the obvious need for their assistance, and multiple escalations with escalating appeals, the airline employees repeatedly recited their policy of not offering special assistance to any travelers.

Cameron Clark, the advocate for the elderly gentleman, quickly became outraged at the indecency of the way Alaska/Horizon treated this poor gentlemen, and took to social justice. He blasted Alaska Airlines on his Facebook page, and the story quickly went viral, then hit the national news with USA Today. Wouldn’t you know, Alaska Airlines has now taken a very active interest in our elderly and disabled gentleman flyer. In his apology, President Johnson from Horizon Air admits they should have handled it better.

I’d like to quickly address the leaders out there who believe good policies and procedures are the way to run a company. Directionally I agree; however you must be careful of getting into situations like Alaska. Good policies keep everything in order, and this is very important for an airline. They have a huge responsibility over others. Without an over-emphasis on policy, a lot of people could die.

That said, it’s impossible to create a policy/procedure for every situation. Especially when dealing with the public, there’s a wide variety of possible situations. They fell into the process management trap. Something obviously went wrong with Alaska, but I don’t blame the employees at the gate, I blame the leadership. Their philosophy is obviously bureaucratic, the employees were just doing what they were told, and they’re probably not allowed to do anything different for fear of some sanction.

The leadership needs to adjust their approach, and allow the employees on the front line to use some discretion. Yes, you will get a variety of inconsistent outcomes for different situations, but you must learn to live with it. It’s better than being crucified in the social media by your customers.

It’s good that Alaska apologized, but the damage is already done. This want so viral, I heard about it from my chiropractor when I was getting adjusted on Wednesday. You should read some of the responses to the apology. Few people are buying the ostensible sincerity of the President—would you?

It’s better to get the leadership correct so there is no need for an apology. There’s no undo in Unix; don’t issue return on the wrong command.

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Some IT organizations today still cringe when employees, or even their own business users, come to them with the technology they want to use. To them BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) is just another four-letter word. They’d rather if you just kept your smartphone and tablet computer far away from their precious infrastructure, as they hide behind corporate policy to avoid having to deal with integration hassles.

I’ve done a lot of work advising architecture for data warehousing and business intelligence solutions, and the crusades I’ve seen waged against the evils of spread-marts (spreadsheets used as data marts) and other user-controlled reporting mechanisms, is reminiscent of the holy wars of 13th century Europe. Leaders who participate in such barbaric behavior are waging the wrong battle. It’s difficult to get good feedback; great leaders don’t push it away, they welcome it!

I recently wrote an article for SearchCIO-MidMarket on how the consumerization of IT can be leveraged to improve an IT organization. You can read it here, if you’re a current subscriber (registration is free). The point extends beyond IT, so if you’re a leader in any capacity, what’s happening in IT is worth noticing.

For those of you not familiar with the term, consumerization of IT simply means employees bringing technology to IT, instead of the other way around. It’s been attempted for decades; however, the outmoded mantras of “use whatever IT mandates,” are being strongly challenged with the empowerment of the social generation. Under mounting pressure from top management, IT organizations today are forced to make things work instead of arbitrarily dismissing a proposed technology because it’s not a good architectural fit.

In my opinion, IT never should have pushed back. In their zeal to protect their fiefdom, they isolated themselves from the rest of the organization. This forced organizations to reconsider how integral the function of IT was, and many IT professionals found themselves out of a job as outsourcing became the rational conclusion.

Whenever you have the opportunity to have your users—whether they’re business users or customers—come to you for help in making their lives easier, you should jump on it right away. It won’t take long for them to determine whether or not you’re on their side. And if you’re not on their side—you’re on the wrong side.

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