20 Minutes To Measure Your Life


Can you explain why your life is the way it is? Can you predict what it will be like if you continue to do what you do?

These are just two of the questions considered in Clayton Christensen’s TED Talk: How To Measure Your Life. Invest 20 minutes to figure out what to measure to live the life you want.

It’s Never Too Late to Start Over



The company was a giant in its industry.  It began in 1886 as a symbol of  ingenuity when an entrepreneur saw an “office writing” machine demonstrated at a Centennial Exhibition and decided that he could build a better one. So, Alexander Brown approached two brothers, Lyman and Willard Smith, to design and produce a “newfangled writing machine.” Thus, the “Smith Premier Typewriting Company” was born.

Smith Typewriters soon became one of the most popular pieces of office equipment because of the insight and innovation of the Smith Brothers. It’s because of them we have a standard keyboard today where keys can do double duty through a shift key. We can read text as we produce it thanks to the Smith brothers’ insight that the ribbon should face away from, not towards, the typist. After business losses due to the 1929 market crash, they recovered after introducing a portable machine to be used anywhere. In 1955, Smith Corona introduced the first electronic typewriter that accelerated production with less effort on the keys.  It wasn’t done innovating yet. Smith Corona introduced one of the first Word Processors in the 1980’s, and led the word processing marketing in 1989.  Its word processors introduced us to features we use today, such as spell checker and grammar checker.

In 1990, a Smith Corona marketing executive declared that the industry was in a transition between “word processors and typewriters.” Even though it launched a line of personal computers, Smith Corona believed there would be a strong role for typewriters and word processors as personal computers were too expensive and complicated to use. In hindsight, clinging to the typewriter and word processing market was a fatally bad bet.  One hundred and nine years after Alexander Brown approached the Smith Brothers with his idea for a writing machine, Smith Corona stopped making typewriters and declared bankruptcy in 1995. It has re emerged as a thermal label maker.

When Success is an Obstacle to Change

In its prime, Smith Corona was a success by any measure. It dominated an industry that it began. It produced great products. It innovated.  It was focused. It adjusted its business through a great depression and two World Wars; clearly it knew how to cope with crisis. While I don’t know the entire story of Smith Corona, I can’t help but wonder. Was its success a barrier to the changes it needed to survive?

Smith Corona imagined itself as late as 1990 as a typewriter company. And, it was a damn good typewriter company. From what’s written, the leaders of Smith Corona did not imagine that it could disappear because the need for typewriters would disappear. Smith Corona had to let go of its greatest success to keep itself successful. For whatever reason, it could not.

The White Sheet of Paper Exercise

In his book What To Ask the Person In the Mirror, Robert Kaplan challenges organizational leaders to regularly test alignment to its vision and purpose. He argues,  “Crises have long roots.” It’s not only unnecessary, but also reckless, to wait until a crisis appears to make the adjustments an organization needs to survive.

One alternative Kaplan suggests is to test organizational strategy and alignment in the midst of success, not in imminent danger. Consider a white sheet of paper approach to your organization, starting with the fundamental question: If we started this business today, how would we do it?

What products or services would we offer? To whom?  In what places or regions?

How would we be organized? Who would we hire? What partners would we develop?

What would we need to start doing or stop doing?

Why would people want to work for us and with us?

The white sheet of paper exercise demands deep introspection and perhaps difficult answers. These are the kinds of questions that are easy to avoid when everything is going well.  However, success gives the cover to make any changes necessary while change is possible. The same questions are impossible to avoid in a crisis, when the options may be fewer and resources scarcer.

I can’t help but wonder about the eager entrepreneur who built an industry around a machine he saw at an exposition. How did Alexander Brown and the Smith Brothers think about their company at its start?  Would the Smith Corona story have ended differently if its leaders had the courage to challenge what it meant to produce “a newfangled writing machine” at the height of its success? What can the rest of us learn from their story?


Kaplan, R.S. (2011). What to Ask The Person in the Mirror: Critical Questions for Becoming a More Effective Leader and Reaching Your Potential. Boston: Harvard Business School Press.


The Unexpected Path


Laurel Bellows is featured on the front page of the business section of  July 16 edition of The Chicago Tribune.  Bellows is the incoming President of the American Bar Association and the article features highlights of her career. I do not have much in common with Ms. Bellows except one thing: Our careers took unexpected paths.

Ms. Bellows explained that as a young trial lawyer, she expected to represent corporate clients. Perhaps she envisioned herself in the sleek, downtown high-rise buildings hammering out deals across mahogany tables, as corporate legal work is often portrayed in the media. But Ms. Bellows career took an unexpected turn because of her first assignments. She was sent to the local court to represent people accused but without representation. Thus she began her career representing prostitutes instead of bankers. ( To readers who just thought “same thing”, don’t go there. Move along.) Her first clients were dressed in “leopard skin clothes and high heels” instead of custom-made suits.

Over 30 years later at the pinnacle of her career, Ms. Bellows reflects upon how this unexpected early assignment influenced her success. She learned that everyone has their own story. She learned to look for individuals and not stereotypes. She understood that her clients had difficult lives, but none were “worthless or valueless.” And, she accepted her role as a fierce advocate, making prosecutors work to prove their case. As a result of this experience, Bellows began a practice built upon working women of all occupations. She expanded by representing women in the financial services industry because her clients felt she understood their stories and had empathy for the issues they faced. She took on tough cases with enthusiasm. Today, Ms. Bellows represents the corporate clients wearing nice clothes in tall buildings. Soon, she will lead the premier professional organization in her industry.

Rocky Trails vs. Smooth Highways

Perhaps we are moving away from the myth that a high-profile career is a straight line between two points.  The paradigm that success starts on a carefully planned and executed “path”  then continues on a straight line up has probably always been the exception.  Yet, discouraged people I’ve talked with thought it was the norm and they were the exception. I will use Ms. Bellows’s story to illustrate a perspective that might help: Many career “paths” of successful people look more like rocky trails than smooth highways.

Premier leadership development organizations, such as the Center for Creative Leadership and Lominger, have research that concludes successful leaders learn the most from unconventional or novel experiences. Leadership guru Michael Watkins advises us to find “career playgrounds” to test our skills and broaden perspectives.Why? One of many important reasons is that unexpected experiences challenge ingrained notions of who we are,  how we work and how we succeed. When we can’t use what we know in the ways we envisioned, we are forced into new solutions. New insights are the gifts from these experiences; we get to keep them after the challenge has passed.

Detours and Destinations

Sadly, unexpected starts, career detours and professional derailment are not concepts but reality for too many of us.  How many people do you know who are not beginning careers in the way they expected or whose progress has been interrupted due to economic forces out of their control? I won’t offer that there is some cosmic reason for their circumstances or the “blessing in disguise” comfort. They deserve far more respect than platitudes. But perhaps Ms. Bellows story can remind them that success begins in many places, and often unexpected ones. And, when they reach the pinnacle of their career, perhaps it will become clear that the detour helped them to reach their destination.

Resources to Read More

Goldsmith, M., Kaye, B. and Shelton, K. (2000). Learning Journeys: Top Management Experts Share Hard-earned Lessons on Becoming Great Leaders and Mentors. Palo- Alto, CA: Davies- Black

Oor, J. E. (2012). Becoming a More Agile Leader: A Guide to Learning From Your Experiences. Lominger Inernational: A Korn Ferry Company.

Watkins, M.D. (2009). Your Next Move:  The Leader’s Guide to Navigating Major Career Transitions. Boston: Harvard Business School Press.

Are You Ready to Dance?


When I was in kindergarten, my mother registered me for a ballet class at a nearby studio.  Like many little girls, I loved getting dolled up in pink frilly stuff and going to the lessons. I twirled, leapt and tried to plie with great enthusiasm. The lessons built to the crescendo of a recital – one grand performance where our eager troupe would show off our moves.

One class, the ballet teacher announced the performance line up for the recital.  All the names for routines were called, except for mine and another budding Alessandra Ferri.  The teacher told us that we would be her “special helpers” or some other inglorious role. She might have said it in a simpler way to a five year old, but I understood clearly that I wasn’t good enough to dance in the grand finale.

After receipt of my behind the curtain role, I went home, sat in my closet and cried. I put my pink frilly stuff away.  I never danced again. (OK, if there is a rogue photo of me out there somewhere whooping it up at a wedding or other event, I’ll admit to dancing on rare occasions. Or, maybe you’d say it proves Mrs. Smith’s judgment. Either way, my dancing days pretty much ended in kindergarten.)

What Holds You Back?

I thought of this experience when I watched David Kelley’s Ted Talk on creativity. For those of you who don’t know, Kelley founded IDEO, the brilliant innovation firm. His opening point is that many of us don’t think we’re something (i.e. creative, smart, talented) because someone told us we weren’t and we believed it. We carry our “not” card and show it whenever the opportunity to challenge it presents itself. Watch Kelley explain how many of us are far more creative (smart, talented, etc.) than we believe and can show it by confronting our fears.


My hope is that you test old assumptions about what you are “not” and find out for yourself. The upside is that you find gifts that you didn’t know you had. The downside? You confirm that you are not good at something you didn’t think you were good at anyway. My hunch is that you’ll be better than you think.

As for me, I’m going to let the little girl dance.

The Performance Difference


Google is a pretty cool place to work.  It’s cutting edge in innovation, offers perks to drool over with attractive compensation and is full of really smart people.  There is no shortage of people who want to work at Google, evidenced by the fact that it receives one million job applications a year and can be more selective than Harvard.

As a result of its desirability and selectivity, it’s a fair assumption that Goggle has the cream of the crop of employees.  Leaders from the outside looking in might think of Google as a leadership utopia – a wonderland filled with best in class talent competing to work there, motivated to bring their best because of the dollar signs dangling in front of them.  A reason that leaders who think this way are in the outside of Google looking in could rest partly in the fact that Google understands what they do not about motivating people. Even at Goggle, a magnet for attracting top talent to exciting opportunities, leaders understand that the performance difference rests not in the promise of external rewards, but offering the conditions for intrinsic ones.

Rewards from the Inside Out

Here’s a summary of a whole lot of research: Our motivation is at its peak when we are engaged in something we chose that we love. There is a strong relationship between our level of motivation and our performance. Even on those occasions when we are motivated but not very good, motivation acts as the catalyst to get better.

The joy returned when you master something or just get better at it is intrinsic motivation. It’s the gold star of satisfaction because you did it- you dreamed it, you planned it, you worked on it, you saw it through – that creates a renewable resource of motivation that powers good performance.

If it’s That Easy…

If intrinsic motivation is as easy as opening doors for people to apply their talents to areas they love, and motivation fuels improved performance, then why don’t more leaders and organizations do it? Here’s why: too many of us confuse complexity with excellence, control with outcome and measurement with results. Too many leaders believe that if they don’t tell people what to do, how to do it and when to do it that it won’t get done. Too many organizations think that if they just reward past performance, they’ll get better future performance. (They should read their own marketing literature that informs us that “past performance doesn’t guarantee future results”, but I digress.)

Creating the engine of intrinsic motivation IS as easy as allowing people some level of autonomy over their work and opportunities to master areas of special interest. Goggle, an organization that has models and measures for just about everything, knows this. It’s why they allow their prized engineers 20 percent of their time to work on projects of their choice. Recently, Google’s Manager of the Year, Farzad  “Fuzzy” Khosrowshani explained that he improved loyalty and moral on his Google Docs team by allowing employees even more discretionary time to work on projects of their choice. If Google, with its deep pockets and lavish perks, knows that even it can’t drive performance through extrinsic motivation alone, why do so many others keep trying?

Ideas to Create the Performance Difference

Daniel Pink, in his book Drive, describes several practical ways leaders and organizations everywhere can tap into the intrinsic motivation that rests inside each employee and unleash it onto improved performance. A few are listed below to get you started.

1. Ask your associates what they really want to be good at.  Help them find ways they can do more of it. Don’t hand them the list of competencies from HR that tells them what the organization wants them to be good at, but ask what they want to be good at. Here’s an example. I once worked with an analyst who had the responsibility for data maintenance, analytics and reports. During a conversation, she shared that she had a journalism degree and experience as a reporter for a local paper. She loved to write as a hobby. I asked her to write up summaries of the analysis she produced like “special investigative stories.” She looked for opportunities to take on other department communications. She enjoyed the challenge, was better at it than I was, and was motivated to do well. It was a classic win/win outcome.

2. Carve out time for associates to think about how they could improve their jobs or contribute differently. Ask them to share their ideas the next day.  Daniel Pink gives several examples of creative managers “clearing the day” for associates to “advise up” on how they could improve performance or results. The only rule is that associates have to present their ideas the next day. Other than that, associates can work where they want, on what they want, with whom they want. In a related idea, Pink talks about a customer service manager who periodically manages customer calls for an hour so her associates can take the time to develop ideas about how they could improve performance. The manager gets much better insight into the experience of her associates and receives good ideas about improving performance. All for a couple of hours.

3.  Just get out of the way.  Assume your associates are capable and interested in doing well. They (gasp) may even know more about their jobs than you do. As a leader, focus 80 % of time on why their contributions matter and 20% on how the work should be done.  Better yet, ask associates to tell you how they’ll deliver.  Care less that someone works differently and care more that his or her performance continually gets better.

We do not have to look at cutting edge employers like Google and wonder “if only.” We can get the same performance momentum by realizing that what really motivates associates is autonomy over their work, the opportunity to find something they enjoy and the pride that comes with just getting better. And, accepting that some things that are easy don’t have to be so hard.


Examples of the “whole lot of research” on motivation:

Blitzer, J., Schrettl, W. and Schroeder, P.J.H. (2007). Intrinsic motivation in open software development. Journal of Comparative Economics (35) 7, 4

Frey, B. (1997) Not Just for the Money: An Economic Theory of Personal Motivation. Burlington, VT: Edward Elger.

Pink, D. H. (2009). Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us. New York: Penguin Books.

Google Reference:

Walker, J. ( 2012). Google’s Algorithms for Talent. Wall Street Journal, July 5, 2012, page B1.

What George Knew About Leadership Development


On the eve of the USA’s 236th birthday, some lessons from its humble beginnings are still relevant today.  As a student of leadership, I find the group collaboration and organizational design principles of the Founding Fathers fascinating. Today, I reflect on two leadership development lessons to prepare America’s first President still relevant to organizations today.

Experiences, especially hardship experiences, are the best development for leaders

When George Washington was appointed as Commander in Chief of the Continental Army in June 1775, he was charged with leading a hastily formed force, poorly prepared and ill equipped, against the best trained and equipped military of the time. As he wrote in January 1776: The reflection upon my current situation and that of this army produces many an uneasy hour…few know the predicament we are in. Not withstanding the challenges Washington had overcome earlier in life, his appointment as Commander in Chief was undoubtedly his greatest challenge.

We don’t have full insight about what Washington learned about leading the Continental army that prepared him for his role as the first president of the United States.  In lieu of a guest blog featuring George, I’ll offer a few good guesses.  He learned how to relate to the conflicting attitudes and cultures among the thirteen states he led. He learned how to build alliances, especially with Congress. He capitalized on a deep reservoir of good will among his citizens. He deepened his discipline and tolerance for hardship. Did Washington want all of the hardship he encountered? In his own words, no. Washington wrote at a low point: Could I have foreseen what I have and expect to experience, no consideration upon the earth should have induced me to accept this command. Did it prepare him for the Presidency in a way no other could? Absolutely.

The “Born or Made” Debate

Opinions about whether leaders are born or made spark energetic debate. Put me in the leaders are made camp. And, leaders are made mostly from aggregate experiences. People may be born with desirable leadership attributes that provide a head start on their leadership journey, i.e. intelligence, an optimistic disposition, and native curiosity. These gifts can be developed through great education. But does leadership skill matter unless it’s used? How do we know someone can lead until they do? More importantly, how do they know they can lead until they do? Experience, especially difficult ones, put our leadership gifts to the test and turbo charge them with personal meaning.

For anyone interested, The Center for Creative Leadership offers interesting research into the “born” or “made” leadership development debate. http://www.ccl.org/leadership/pdf/research/AreLeadersBornOrMade.pdf

 Develop the Talent You Have Instead of Chasing Stars

Washington presented an unlikely resume for appointment as Commander in Chief. His only significant prior military experience was fighting for the British army under General Braddock’s ugly defeat in the French and Indian Wars. Away from the military for 15 years, his passions included architecture, landscape design and the theatre. He had never led anything larger than a regiment, nor led an army into battle. Washington wrote upon his appointment: But lest some unlucky event should happen unfavorable to my reputation, I beg it be remembered…that this day I declare with utmost sincerity that I do not feel myself equal to the command I (am) honored with.

This less than ideal first Commander in Chief had qualities beyond deep military experience that served him well in his new assignment. He was a congressional insider. His political experience and savvy allowed him to navigate competing interests in Congress and among the colonies. He understood how the system worked. His passion for architecture contributed to a keen sense of design and detail. His experience as a surveyor came in handy in drawing battle plans. His love of the theater and acting gave him a model to “act the part of a Commander” when needed to the rag tag troops he led. Congress could have appointed better-trained Generals, but one could argue it was Washington’s intangible traits that contributed most to his success.

Would Your Organization Have Passed on George Washington?

How many organizations today would have passed on General Washington? He had neither the perfect pedigree nor resume for their needs. They would continue their search for the hypothetical star for their high-risk placement.  I can imagine the arguments for this approach: Not George. We’ve never fought a war like this. He’s not ready. Can’t we find someone with a formal education? We need to turn this over to someone with the experience to get it done fastThey would have fallen under the misconception that the unknown star is less of a risk than the unproven talent they know.

Booz and Company recently released research regarding success rates of CEO’s.  It shows while the majority of CEO placements still favor insiders, the rate of external placements continues to increase at a rapid rate. This suggests some feel it’s a safer bet to place someone with previous chief executive experience. Those who want culture change place bets that an outsider will arrive with new thinking and impose it from the top.

Despite the allure of placing a perfect candidate to head the organization, the research from Booz and Company suggests otherwise. Outsider CEO’s are almost twice as likely to be forced out than insiders. Insiders produce greater results as measured by market returns and have a longer tenure. Some cases show they produce more internal change than outsiders. Why? Like General Washington, they know the players. They know the challenge. They know how the system works. They are ready for battle.

See the Booz & Company study on CEO succession at http://www.booz.com/

In closing, I’ll disclose that I don’t believe the USA’s founding fathers got everything right. Their views on slavery, citizenship equity for Blacks and women and the treatment of American Indians caused profound lasting damage. On the other hand, they got many things right. From that, we can still use two vital lessons about developing leaders.


All quotes from George Washington’s writings are from:

McCullough, D. (2005). 1776. New York: Simon and Schuster