Practically Radical

"The most powerful and instructive change manual you'll ever read."

- Daniel H. Pink, bestselling author of
A Whole New Mind and Drive
Wall Street Journal Bestseller!
#1 Bestseller! Inc./800CEORead
May 15th, 2012

Your Company’s “Obituary” Can Shape Its Future

If you’ve spent any amount of time in executive retreats or leadership offsites, you’ve probably been asked to participate in a familiar evaluation of your career and impact. “Take twenty minutes,” a facilitator will say, “and write your professional obituary. What legacy did you leave? What contribution did you make? What might colleagues remember about you?”

At one level, it’s a strange (and slightly morbid) exercise. At another level, it serves a worthwhile purpose—encouraging leaders to see themselves the way their colleagues see them, to evaluate their long-term impact from the perspective of the people who feel that impact. One of the most revealing ways to reflect on how you’re living your professional life is to reckon honestly with how you might be remembered when you are gone.

Well, what goes for individuals goes for organizations, too. That’s why I’ve begun to encourage senior leaders of companies, executives who run business units or departments, even mid-level managers who are responsible for a specific brand, to step back and take time (probably much longer than twenty minutes) and write their organization’s obituary. What legacy did your company leave in its industry? What contributions did your business unit make to your company? How did your brand move the needle in a market category? To clarify your company's future, it helps to step back and imagine a world in which it does not exist.

Here's my latest essay for HBR, on the value of writing your company's obituary.

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April 20th, 2012

To Win Big, It Helps To Be a Little “Nuts”

Here’s a simple question for all you students of business success and stock-market returns: What has been the best-performing stock in the United States since the “Black Monday” crash of 1987? If you said Apple or Microsoft or Walmart or Berkshire Hathaway, you’d get credit for a reasonable answer. But you’d be wrong. The best-performing stock in the United States over the last 25 years is a company that most of you, I’d be willing to guess, have never heard of—a company called Fastenal, based in the quiet town of Winona, Minnesota (population: 28,000), located on the banks of the Mississippi River 30 miles northwest of La Crosse, Wisconsin.

In what glamorous, high-margin, cutting-edge business has Fastenal made its mark? Not software, healthcare, or aerospace. Fastenal is the country’s dominant distributor of nuts and bolts. That’s right…If you’ve got the proverbial screw loose, if you’re a major construction company or a small contractor or individual homeowner desperate for an exotic nut or bolt to complete a job, Fastenal is where you turn.

According to a recent article in Bloomberg BusinessWeek, the company has more than 11,000 sales people in 2,600 stores along with an online catalogue that extends for 10,700 pages. It also has more than 5,500 “fully customized and automated Fastenal stores” on job sites and at customer locations—essentially, vending machines for nuts and bolts. The result of this overwhelming reach is truly overwhelming business performance. According to BusinessWeek, the company’s share price is up 38,565 percent since October 1987. Microsoft, by contrast, is up less than 10,000 percent over that same period (still not bad!), and Apple is up by 5,500 percent.

What’s the lesson to draw from Fastenal’s growth and prosperity? I suppose you could wax rhapsodic about the virtues of low-tech components in a high-tech age, and remind yourself that not every growth company is based in Silicon Valley or some other Internet hotspot. But the real lesson is more universal than that. The Fastenal story reminds all of us of the power of making big bets and staking out an “extreme” position in the market—in this case, offering a wider variety of products through more channels at a greater number of physical and virtual locations than anyone else in the business.

Fastenal has thrived because it has carved out a truly one-of-a-kind presence in its field. As its founder, Bob Kierlin, told BusinessWeek, “It was the craziest thing to ask people to invest in a company selling nuts and bolts”—especially one that aspired to sell anything to anyone virtually anywhere. But as it turns out, if you want to win big, it helps to be a little nuts.

Here's my latest for HBR on the power of not-so-crazy ideas in business.

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April 4th, 2012

It’s Not What You Sell, It’s What You Believe

Adam Lashinsky’s new book Inside Apple offers lots of intriguing material about Steve Jobs and the strategic choices, design principles, and business tactics that created the most valuable company on earth. But for all of Lashinsky’s behind-the-scenes material about Apple’s legendary leader, it was a public story about Apple’s new leader, CEO Tim Cook, that most captured my attention—and offered a powerful insight for leaders everywhere looking to create value in their organizations.

The story goes back to January 21, 2009, during Cook’s inaugural conference call with investors after Jobs announced his medical leave of absence. The very first question, Lashinsky reports, was from an analyst who wanted to know whether Cook might replace Jobs permanently and how the company would be different if he did. Cook did not respond with a detailed review of the products Apple made or the retail environments in which it sold them. Instead, he offered an unscripted statement of what he and everyone at Apple believed—“as if reciting a creed he had learned as a child” in Sunday School.

“We believe that we are on the face of the earth to make great products, and that’s not changing…” Cook declared.

“We believe in the simple not the complex…We believe in saying no to thousands of products, so that we can really focus on the few that are truly important and meaningful to us,” he added.

“We believe in deep collaboration and cross-pollination of our groups, which allow us to innovate in ways other cannot…And I think that regardless of who is in what job those values are so embedded in this company that Apple will do extremely well,” he concluded.

It’s not what you sell, it’s what you believe. If there is one principle that I believe explains why some organizations—Apple, Southwest Airlines, USAA, Cirque du Soleil, the Marine Corps, Pixar—consistently and dramatically outperform their rivals, it is that every person in the organization, regardless of job title or function, understands what makes the organization tick and why what the organization does matters.

Over at my Harvard Business Review blog, I explore the three questions that every great company has to answer: What do you promise that nobody else in your industry can promise? What do you deliver that nobody else can deliver? What do you believe that only you believe?

You can read the essay here.

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April 2nd, 2012

See Me, Hear Me….

No, I'm not doing my version of The Who's Tommy. But over the last few weeks I've had a chance to do two Web-based events that are now available to the general public. I'd like to invite you to check out either or both events and let me know what you think.

The first was a video Webinar hosted by Capella University, the online teaching organization based in Minneapolis. I didn't think staring into a camera and talking would be so energizing, but I had fun--and really enjoyed getting to know the folks at Capella. You can find the video here.

The second was last week, an audio webinar hosted by my friends at Harvard Business Review and sponsored by UPS. For those of you who agree that I have a face for radio, the audio event my be the preferred option. Again, I had loads of fun. You can find the audio here.

Check out either or both and let me know what you think!!!

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February 21st, 2012

I’m Going Public!

I spend most of my time these days on the road, giving talks and leading discussions based on the ideas and lessons in Practically Radical. Most of these sessions, sadly, are not open to the public--either they are private events held by companies, or members-only events organized by associations. In two weeks, though, I'll be part of back-to-back events--one online, the other in-person--that are open to the public. I hope you'll consider attending one or the other.

The first is on Tuesday March 6, at 1 PM Eastern. It's being hosted by Capella University, and it's a one-hour Webinar in which I'll talk about leadership, innovation, and the power of culture, and take questions via Twitter. Capella is really good at these online sessions, and it promises to be loads of fun. You can register free here.

On Wednesday, March 7, I'll be part of an open-to-the-public event in Cambridge MA. It's the 2012 Annual Meeting of the Massachusetts Technology Leadership Council. Rather than do a talk, I'll be leading a "fireside chat" with the incomparable Bill Campbell, a legendary figure in Silicon Valley who has been a trusted adviser to everyone from Steve Jobs to the top guys at Google to John Doerr, Ben Horowitz, and other leading venture capitalists.  Bill Campbell has to be seen to be believed, and if you're in or around Cambridge on March 7 you should come see for yourself. Tickets are available here.

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February 14th, 2012

On Valentine’s Day, an Ode to Leadership and Love

Here it is Valentine’s Day, nine days after my beloved New York Giants defeated the New England Patriots to win Super Bowl XLVI, and there are two things about the game I still can’t shake. One is my general sense of euphoria, especially since I made the case in a pretty high-profile forum (The Washington Post) for why “Eli Manning Is a Better Leader than Tom Brady.” That was two days before Super Bowl Sunday—phew!

The second thing that sticks with me is the speech that Tom Coughlin, the gruff disciplinarian who coaches the Giants, made the night before the game. It was unapologetically emotional address that moved several players to tears and ended with the coach whispering to his team, “I love you.” After the game, with the players still buzzing about the speech, Coughlin’s wife Judy explained the coach’s sentimentality: “He loves this team,” she told the New York Daily News. “He found the right time to tell them.”

Now, it’s always risky to draw business lessons from the world of sports, and it’s even riskier to mix words like leadership and love, but if you can’t make sports analogies in the shadow of the Super Bowl, and you can’t talk about love on Valentine’s Day, then when can you? So allow me to do a little of both.

There’s a wonderful biography of Vince Lombardi by David Maraniss, the Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter at the Washington Post. After the Green Bay Packers captured the first-ever Super Bowl, Maraniss writes, Coach Lombardi, as tough an SOB as there was on the American sporting scene, found himself in high demand as a speaker to executive audiences, who wanted him to translate his principles for victory on the gridiron to success in work and life. (His first business talk, Maraniss notes, was to a big American Management Association conference in New York City, and Lombardi “considered it a seminal moment in his emergence as a public figure known for more than winning football games.”)

In what became a recurring message to corporate America, he set out seven principles of competition and leadership, most of which you’d expect from the greatest football coach of all time. But his most important principle was also the most surprising: Love is more powerful than hate.

"The love I’m speaking of is loyalty, which is the greatest of loves,” Lombardi told his audiences. “Teamwork, the love that one man has for another and that he respects the dignity of another…I am not speaking of detraction. You show me a man who belittles another and I will show you a man who is not a leader…Heart power is the strength of your company.  Heart power is the strength of the Green Bay Packers. Heart power is the strength of America and hate power is the weakness of the world."

Business still has lots to learn from Vince Lombardi. Yes, the most successful organizations think differently from the competition—they build their strategies around a distinctive and disruptive set of ideas. But the most successful companies also care more than the competition—about customers, about colleagues, about how the entire organization conducts itself in a word with endless opportunities to cut corners and compromise on values.

In his heartfelt book Love is the Killer App (published several years ago, cleverly enough, on Valentine’s Day), Tim Sanders, then chief solutions officer at Yahoo, makes the case that as economic conditions get more turbulent, and corporate rivalries get more fierce, positive emotions get to be a defining element of success. “As the world becomes more competitive,” he writes, “we also compete for people’s emotions…It’s not completely important what people think about you—it is, however, totally important how they feel about you. People are hungry for compassion. And the tougher the times are, the more important it becomes.”

Here’s my message in a nutshell: As important as it is for companies and leaders to develop a clear value proposition, it’s even more important to present an authentic values proposition—an emotional and psychological connection that establishes you in the hearts and minds of your customers. Sustaining performance is as much about cultivating a spirit of grassroots energy, enthusiasm, and engagement as unleashing a set of game-changing ideas. Companies built around strong opinions are at their best when rank-and-file colleagues share and express strong emotions.

And if that message of love seems a little “soft” for these no-nonsense times, think about those football players who where in tears on Saturday night—and were then hoisting the Vince Lombardi Trophy as Super Bowl champions on Sunday night.

Happy Valentine’s Day.

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February 3rd, 2012

Eli Manning, Leadership Giant

I live in Boston, but I was raised as a New York Giants fan and have remained True Blue for half a century. So what a thrill when the Washington Post asked me to write about the leadership qualities of Eli Manning.

It's all in good fun, of course, and I hope my neighbors and Pats fans in general don't get too upset. But when it comes to leadership, Eli is a real Giant. You can read the piece here. Go Blue!!!!

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January 27th, 2012

“Are You Learning as Fast as the World Is Changing?”

Tom Kelly, general manager of IDEO, the world-renowned design firm, likes to quote French novelist Marcel Proust, who famously said, “The real act of discovery consists not in finding new lands but in seeing with new eyes.” What goes for novelists goes for leaders searching to craft a novel strategy for their company, a new product for their customers, or a better way to organize their employees. In a world that never stops changing, great leaders never stop learning.

Today, the challenge for leaders at every level is no longer just to out-hustle, out-muscle, and out-maneuver the competition. It is to out-think the competition in ways big and small, to develop a unique point of view about the future and help your organization get there before anyone else does. Which is why a defining challenge of leadership is whether you can answer a question that is as simple as it is powerful: Are you learning as fast as the world is changing?

Over at HBR, I've posted an essay on the three "habits of minds" that help good leaders become better learners. You can read it here.

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January 3rd, 2012

I’d Like to Thank the Academy…

I am pleased to report that the end of 2011 brought with it a slew of wonderful accolades and shout-outs for Practically Radical. Among the nice notices, Practically Radical was included on the following lists:  Best Business Books of 2011 (American Express Open Forum). Best Books of 2011 for Entrepreneurs (Inc. Magazine). Best Leadership Books of 2011 (Leadership Now). Great Education Reads of 2011 (Huffington Post).  Bestselling Business Books of 2011 (800CEORead).

Thanks to one and all for the plaudits. I am looking forward to a great 2012, with local-language editions of the book appearing around the world, an updated paperback edition slated for early Fall, and lots more speaking to all sorts of fascinating audiences.

Happy New Year! Now let's get back to the rewarding work of making positive change...

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December 19th, 2011

Average Is Over. What’s Your Extra?

I approach a book by New York Times columnist Thomas Freidman with a mixture of wariness and anticipation. Wariness, because Friedman’s books tend to go on for many pages longer than they need to, and many of those pages contain his trademark blend of Davos Man self-congratulation and cheesy metaphors. But I still have a sense of anticipation, because in every one of Freidman’s books, there are a handful of insights that are so clear, so sharp, so flat-out right that they frame how you look at the world going forward.

That Used to Be Us, Friedman’s new book (written with Johns Hopkins professor Michael Mandelbaum), has at least one such observation—a principle so clearly true, and so crisply expressed, that it should become a mantra of sorts for leaders everywhere who want to build something great and do something important. Chapter Seven of the book is called “Average Is Over,” and it’s a rallying cry that captures what it takes to stand out from the crowd in a world that keeps getting more crowded.

“In a hyper-connected world where so many talented on-Americans and smart machines that can do above-average work are now easily available to virtually every employer, what was ‘average’ work ten years ago is below average today, and will be further below average ten years from now,” Friedman and Mandelbaum write. “As a result, everyone needs to raise his or her game just to stay in place, let alone get ahead…” In an environment where “average is over,” they go on, everybody has to find their “extra”—their unique talent, skill, contribution, or commitment that separates them from the pack and lets them do something special.

Friedman and Mandelbaum are policy wonks, so they explore the notion that “average is over” mainly as it applies to countries and societies, and how we educate kids, train workers, and make public investments. But their insight applies just as powerfully to companies and their leaders. The business world is overflowing with products and services and designs and marketing campaigns that are adequate. The real challenge—and the huge opportunity—is to turn something adequate into something amazing. It’s just not good enough to be pretty good at everything. The most successful companies, products, and brands have figured out how to become the most of something. That is, to find and embrace their “extra.”

Over at HBR, in my latest post, I explore why pretty good isn't nearly good enough, and how you can offer an "extra" in just about any field. You can read the post here.

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