The air we breathe

I’ve been in the Bay Area since Monday. I had some work-related obligations but I had planned this trip to do what I loved most from my time I lived here: go mountain biking. It’s been over ten years since I had done this beautiful trail up in the East Bay hills. I had planned this trip so I would have significant breaks for that very purpose and I fell asleep in Brooklyn for a few nights before my trip thinking of the impossible juxtapositions on that trail — the entire bay spread before you to your left, cows grazing to your right, the Golden Gate bridge looking like an eternal occupant of the space even though you know it was created by people not that long ago in a relative sense.

But I haven’t been out on the trails. Instead, I’ve been been loading an ever-worsening air quality map and staying indoors. maskFor the first day or two, I didn’t worry too much about breathing the air. I wasn’t in one of the “sensitive groups” that were advised against breathing it. But as the air quality worsened, I started dragging. Headache, dry mouth, voice growing raspy. I got my hands on an N95 mask and it has become my steady companion. It is an anxiety-ridden companionship. I’ve gone from my usual this-too-shall-pass optimism to an unsteady when-will-we-be-able-to-breathe-like-we-used-to worry.

I’ve been staying in the Berkeley flatlands and the beautiful Berkeley hills that I used to wake up to in the distance every morning in the ten years I lived here have been ghosts on this trip. Every single morning for ten years and I still haven’t seen them once in five days. After a few days, I started to ask myself, “will I see them again?” Writing this now makes it sound more dramatic than maybe it should if you’re not here but there is something distinctly unsettling about not being able to see something you love because it is obscured by noxious smoke that is making it difficult for people around you to breathe, the most basic activity of living. The smoke represents the aftermath of an even greater set of tragedies that are even harder to comprehend. And the smoke keeps coming because the fires keep burning.

I remember the first time I came to the Bay Area and the first thing I noticed was that the light looked different. Everything was brighter and cleaner and the fog came in every night like a cosmic broom to sweep out the day. This is something that the great San-Francisco-born photographer Ansel Adams recognized, too.  I read that Ansel Adams’ earliest memories were of watching the smoke of the fires in San Francisco after the 1906 earthquake at age 4. An aftershock threw him into a garden wall and he broke his nose. It was never set correctly and his nose remained crooked his whole life. From the destruction of the fire that formed his earliest memories and the very earth he stood on turning on him and smashing his face, Adams spent his life capturing the beauty of the landscapes around him and we were all lifted up by his work. Maybe there’s some larger lesson to be learned from that, but for now, I’m just waiting to see those Berkeley hills again.

California

Seal_of_CaliforniaI lived in Berkeley, California from 1998-2008 and the state made an indelible impression on me that leaves me feeling deeply connected. The many tragedies out there this week have had me thinking about how much California means to me and how much I’m hoping for the best for everyone out there on the west coast.

The people, the landscape, and the culture of California changed me in ways that are hard to articulate. On a fundamental level, living in California transformed me into a person who thought bigger, dreamed bigger, loved bigger. California opened me up in a million different ways and I will always love it deeply for that. It feels like a home to me, one of the handful of places where I feel in sync with life in a deeply fundamental way.

The landscape there is nearly beyond description. It is absolutely awe-inspiring and I never got used to it. I read Dave Eggers’ A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius when it came out just after I moved to California and it captured my excitement better than I ever could:

We run back across the highway, back into the red Civic and keep driving. Past the surfers, through the eucalyptus forest before Half Moon Bay, birds swooping up and over then back, circling around us—they too, for us!—then the cliffs before Seaside—then flat for a little while, then a few more bends and can you see this motherfucking sky? I mean, have you fucking been to California?

Oh, yes, I have fucking been to California. And it really is grand. A glorious mess in so many ways — just like some of the people I love most — but just stupendous. I’ll leave it to other people to lay out their critiques but I’m thinking of California with love and the feeling of wonder that never waned, wishing the best for everyone out there during a difficult time. I love you, California.

p.s. couldn’t resist including another passage from Eggers’ book, describing the magic of many places I know and love from my time in Berkeley:

To our right is the Pacific, and because we are hundreds of feet above the ocean, often with nothing in the way of a guardrail between us and it, there is sky not only above us but below us, too. Toph does not like the cliff, is not looking down, but we are driving in the sky, with clouds whipping over the road, the sun flickering through, the sky and ocean below. Only up here does the earth look round, only up here does the horizon dip at its ends, only up here can you see the bend of the planet at the edges of your peripheries. Only here are you almost sure that you are careening on top of a big shiny globe, blurrily spinning—you are never aware of these things in Chicago, it being so flat, so straight—and and and we have been chosen, you see, chosen, and have been given this, it being owed to us, earned by us, all of this—the sky is blue for us, the sun makes passing cars twinkle like toys for us, the ocean undulates and churns for us, murmurs and coos to us. We are owed, see, this is ours, see. We are in California, living in Berkeley, and the sky out here is bigger than anything we’ve ever seen—it goes on forever, is visible from every other hilltop—hilltops!—every turn on the roads of Berkeley, of San Francisco— We have a house, a sublet for the summer, that overlooks the world, up in the Berkeley hills; it’s owned by people, Scandinavians, Beth says, who must have some money, because it’s all the way up there, and it’s all windows and light and decks, and up there we see everything, Oakland to the left, El Cerrito and Richmond to the right, Marin forward, over the Bay, Berkeley below, all red rooftops and trees of cauliflower and columbine, shaped like rockets and explosions, all those people below us, with humbler views; we see the Bay Bridge, clunkety, the Richmond Bridge, straight, low, the Golden Gate, red toothpicks and string, the blue between, the blue above, the gleaming white Land of the Lost/Superman’s North Pole Getaway magic crystals that are San Francisco . . . and at night the whole fucking area is a thousand airstrips, Alcatraz blinking, the flood of halogen down the Bay Bridge, oozing to and fro, a string of Christmas lights being pulled slowly, steadily, and of course the blimps—so many blimps this summer—and stars, not too many visible, with the cities and all, but still some, a hundred maybe, enough, how many do you need, after all? From our windows, from our deck it’s a lobotomizing view, which negates the need for movement or thought—it is all there, it can all be kept track of without a turn of the head. The mornings are filmstrip white and we eat breakfast on the deck, and later we eat lunch there, we eat dinner there, we read there, play cards, always with the whole thing, the postcard tableau, just there, all those little people, too much view to seem real, but then again, then again, nothing really is all that real anymore, we must remember, of course, of course. (Or is it just the opposite? Is everything more real? Aha.) Behind our house, not too far, is Tilden Park, an endless expanse of lakes and trees and hills, mohair hills touched by patches of shrubs—as in, mohair hill, mohair hill, mohair hill, then an armpit of dark green, then the mohair hills that go on and on, like sleeping lions, as far as— Especially when you’re on your bike, starting from Inspiration Point (No. Yes.), pedaling into the wind on your way in and with the wind on the way back, the hills going on until Richmond, miles away, where the factories and power plants and big tanks full of deadly or life-giving things are, and the bike path goes the whole way there, all the while with the Bay visible in the distance to the left, the hills on and on to the right, until Mount Diablo, the biggest of all of them, king of the mohair hills, twenty miles east, northeast, whatever. The paths are paralleled with and perpendiculared by wood and wire fences that hold cows, and sometimes sheep, and all this is minutes away, all there, from our house, our house behind which there’s even a hiking trail that reaches, just about reaches, the huge rock, Grotto Rock, that juts out twenty feet beyond our back deck, and on some days, when Toph and I are eating our breakfast out on the porch, with the sun crazy and happy for us, smiling and teary-eyed with pride, there will suddenly appear hikers, male and female, always coupled, in their khaki shorts and brown shoes and hats on backward, who will step up from below the rock, and then be atop it, and then be there, holding their backpack straps with their thumbs, at eye level with us, as we eat our breakfast on our redwood deck, twenty feet away. “Hello!” we say, Toph and I, with compact waves. “Hello,” they say, surprised to see us there, eating our breakfast, at eye level. It is nice, this moment. Then it’s awkward, because they are at the the top, the end, of their hike, and want only to sit down for a while and admire the view, but can’t help be conscious of these two people, impossibly handsome people, Toph and I, who are sitting not twenty feet behind them, eating Apple Jacks from the box.

 

Seven surprises for new CEOs

Being CEO is different than any other executive position. I’ve lived it myself.  I also work with many CEO clients in my coaching practice who are adjusting to the role and are surprised by some of the dynamics around it.

I’ve found that when I share a particular HBR piece from 2004 with them and they read it, those CEOs I work with often breathe a sigh of relief as they recognize they are having an entirely normal experience in the new role. The piece is “Seven surprises for new CEOs” and this is the intro paragraph:

Bearing full responsibility for a company’s success or failure, but being unable to control most of what will determine it. Having more authority than anyone else in the organization, but being unable to wield it without unhappy consequences. Sound like a tough job? It is—ask a CEO. Surprised by the description? So are CEOs who are new to the role. Just when an executive feels he has reached the pinnacle of his career, capturing the coveted goal for which he has so long been striving, he begins to realize that the CEO’s job is different and more complicated than he imagined. [yes, the authors need to work on their gender language. -CD]

The seven surprises are:

  1. You Can’t Run the Company
  2. Giving Orders Is Very Costly
  3. It Is Hard to Know What Is Really Going On
  4. You Are Always Sending a Message
  5. You Are Not the Boss
  6. Pleasing Shareholders Is Not the Goal
  7. You Are Still Only Human

That’s the core list of seven but the explanations of each are worth reading. Be sure to check it out if you’re a new CEO or if you work with one and want to understand him/her better.

Nonviolent communication and the concept of “denial of responsibility”

nvc_book

One of the most important books ever written is Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life by Dr. Marshall Rosenberg. Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella reportedly gave the book to his team and made them read it when he took over as CEO in 2014 — an admirable leadership move and a serious statement on the kind of culture he wanted to enforce at Microsoft. I’m certain that the concept of nonviolent communication (often referred to as NVC) has contributed to their incredible success since then. I saw a great example of nonviolent CEO communication today and wanted to call it out — but first a little background.

One category of violent communication (“violent communication” being defined as “communication that blocks compassion”) is “denial of responsibility.”  It’s described this way in the book:

Another kind of life-alienating communication is denial of responsibility. Communication is life-alienating when it clouds our awareness that we are each responsible for our own thoughts, feelings, and actions. The use of the common expression have to, as in “There are some things you have to do, whether you like it or not,” illustrates how personal responsibility for our actions can be obscured in speech. The phrase makes one feel, as in “You make me feel guilty,” is another example of how language facilitates denial of personal responsibility for our own feelings and thoughts.

In her book Eichmann in Jerusalem, which documents the war crimes trial of Nazi officer Adolf Eichmann, Hannah Arendt quotes Eichmann saying that he and his fellow officers had their own name for the responsibility-denying language they used. They called it Amtssprache, loosely translated into English as “office talk” or “bureaucratese.” For example, if asked why they took a certain action, the response would be, “I had to.” If asked why they “had to,” the answer would be, “Superiors’ orders.” “Company policy.” “It was the law.”  We deny responsibility for our actions when we attribute their cause to factors outside ourselves:

* Vague, impersonal forces—“I cleaned my room because I had to.”

* Our condition, diagnosis, or personal or psychological history—“I drink because I am an alcoholic.

* The actions of others—“I hit my child because he ran into the street.

* The dictates of authority—“I lied to the client because the boss told me to.

* Group pressure—“I started smoking because all my friends did.

* Institutional policies, rules, and regulations—“I have to suspend you for this infraction because it’s the school policy.

* Gender roles, social roles, or age roles—”I hate going to work, but I do it because I am a husband and a father.

* Uncontrollable impulses—“I was overcome by my urge to eat the candy bar.

We have all seen this type of communication. We are so used to these kinds of “denial of responsibility” statements from our leaders that we no longer see them as the violent language that they are. This type of language is rife in our culture and I’m unfortunately sure that I’ve used it myself. But I think positive examples are worth calling out, and Twilio CEO Jeff Lawson’s tweet today and the post it links to fits the bill:

Twilio is a publicly-traded company so Jeff has substantial responsibilities as a CEO. It is not an easy job (take it from me). But Jeff is also an actual person (and from spending some time with Jeff and following his career, I put him squarely in the “good person” category). It would be really easy for Jeff to say that he doesn’t comment on politics because he’s the CEO of a public company — and many do. He could say he’s not sure of the political views of his shareholders so he will remain silent out of deference to them. He could say he won’t speak out unless he has a “business case” for speaking out (and this Wall St. Journal columnists argues just that: “You’re a CEO: Stop Talking Like a Political Activist.“) These all follow the pattern of “denial of responsibility” described by Rosenberg. In doing all of those things, Jeff would be denying his responsibility as a person and a citizen.

But Jeff didn’t follow the “denial of responsibility” pattern and I applaud him for speaking his mind clearly and directly. I think Jeff’s post is a great example of nonviolent communication in action by actively avoiding the “denial of responsibility” traps that are really easy for CEOs to fall into, especially public company ones:

  • Vague, impersonal forces—“the markets might react poorly.”
  • The dictates of authority—“My shareholders wouldn’t like it.
  • Institutional policies, rules, and regulations—“I can’t say anything because public company CEOs don’t talk about politics without a business case
  • Gender roles, social roles, or age roles (I’m defining “CEO as a ‘social role’ here)—”I wish I could say something, but I’m a public company CEO.

Thanks for your leadership, Jeff, and for stepping out into the truth. We can all learn from your example.

Solitude and leadership

lincoln

Lincoln alone, writing the Emancipation Proclamation (source)

One of my favorite talks is “Solitude and Leadership” by William Deresiewicz in a lecture that was delivered at the United States Military Academy at West Point in October 2009. It’s about the critical and often overlooked link between solitude and leadership. We tend to think of leaders when they are “in the arena” or practicing “management by walking around” but not as much about the necessity for leaders to spend time sitting alone, thinking and reflecting.

The transcript of the talk is worth reading in its entirety but I pulled a few quotes below to give you a flavor:

My title must seem like a contradiction. What can solitude have to do with leadership? Solitude means being alone, and leadership necessitates the presence of others—the people you’re leading. When we think about leadership in American history we are likely to think of Washington, at the head of an army, or Lincoln, at the head of a nation, or King, at the head of a movement—people with multitudes behind them, looking to them for direction. And when we think of solitude, we are apt to think of Thoreau, a man alone in the woods, keeping a journal and communing with nature in silence.

Leadership is what you are here to learn—the qualities of character and mind that will make you fit to command a platoon, and beyond that, perhaps, a company, a battalion, or, if you leave the military, a corporation, a foundation, a department of government. Solitude is what you have the least of here, especially as plebes. You don’t even have privacy, the opportunity simply to be physically alone, never mind solitude, the ability to be alone with your thoughts. And yet I submit to you that solitude is one of the most important necessities of true leadership. This lecture will be an attempt to explain why.

. . . . .

We have a crisis of leadership in America because our overwhelming power and wealth, earned under earlier generations of leaders, made us complacent, and for too long we have been training leaders who only know how to keep the routine going. Who can answer questions, but don’t know how to ask them. Who can fulfill goals, but don’t know how to set them. Who think about how to get things done, but not whether they’re worth doing in the first place. What we have now are the greatest technocrats the world has ever seen, people who have been trained to be incredibly good at one specific thing, but who have no interest in anything beyond their area of exper­tise. What we don’t have are leaders.

What we don’t have, in other words, are thinkers. People who can think for themselves. People who can formulate a new direction: for the country, for a corporation or a college, for the Army—a new way of doing things, a new way of looking at things. People, in other words, with vision.

. . . .

Thinking means concentrating on one thing long enough to develop an idea about it. Not learning other people’s ideas, or memorizing a body of information, however much those may sometimes be useful. Developing your own ideas. In short, thinking for yourself. You simply cannot do that in bursts of 20 seconds at a time, constantly interrupted by Facebook messages or Twitter tweets, or fiddling with your iPod, or watching something on YouTube.

. . . . .

You can just as easily consider this lecture to be about concentration as about solitude. Think about what the word means. It means gathering yourself together into a single point rather than letting yourself be dispersed everywhere into a cloud of electronic and social input. It seems to me that Facebook and Twitter and YouTube—and just so you don’t think this is a generational thing, TV and radio and magazines and even newspapers, too—are all ultimately just an elaborate excuse to run away from yourself. To avoid the difficult and troubling questions that being human throws in your way. Am I doing the right thing with my life? Do I believe the things I was taught as a child? What do the words I live by—words like duty, honor, and country—really mean? Am I happy?

. . . .

it’s perfectly natural to have doubts, or questions, or even just difficulties. The question is, what do you do with them? Do you suppress them, do you distract yourself from them, do you pretend they don’t exist? Or do you confront them directly, honestly, courageously? If you decide to do so, you will find that the answers to these dilemmas are not to be found on Twitter or Comedy Central or even in The New York Times. They can only be found within—without distractions, without peer pressure, in solitude.

. . . .

Thinking for yourself means finding yourself, finding your own reality. Here’s the other problem with Facebook and Twitter and even The New York Times. When you expose yourself to those things, especially in the constant way that people do now—older people as well as younger people—you are continuously bombarding yourself with a stream of other people’s thoughts. You are marinating yourself in the conventional wisdom. In other people’s reality: for others, not for yourself. You are creating a cacophony in which it is impossible to hear your own voice, whether it’s yourself you’re thinking about or anything else. That’s what Emerson meant when he said that “he who should inspire and lead his race must be defended from travelling with the souls of other men, from living, breathing, reading, and writing in the daily, time-worn yoke of their opinions.” Notice that he uses the word lead. Leadership means finding a new direction, not simply putting yourself at the front of the herd that’s heading toward the cliff.

. . . .

I started by noting that solitude and leadership would seem to be contradictory things. But it seems to me that solitude is the very essence of leadership. The position of the leader is ultimately an intensely solitary, even intensely lonely one. However many people you may consult, you are the one who has to make the hard decisions. And at such moments, all you really have is yourself.

Again, here’s the link to the full speech.

Co-teaching a new class at Cornell Tech: BigCo Studio

cornell tech

Cornell Tech campus on Roosevelt Island in NYC

I’ve been formally involved with Cornell Tech as a Fellow for about a year now and it has been super-fun having a front-row seat to seeing a major university rise on an island in the middle of New York City, the greatest city in the world. Cornell Tech’s major point of differentiation from most graduate institutions is its Studio program. All the components of the program are described on the web site but to really boil it down, the Studio program is about combining a top-notch academic foundation with the real-world experience of building actual products and services with multidisciplinary teams (design, engineering, business, and legal).

The Studio program has had an excellent Startup Studio track for years, led by David Tisch. Many students coming out of Cornell Tech will work for larger companies (Google, Microsoft, Amazon, etc.) and I’m excited to write that I will be co-leading and co-teaching a new track to complement Startup Studio with my good friend, former colleague, and Google exec Bradley Horowitz. We’re calling it BigCo Studio:

In this class, students will learn how to successfully navigate the opportunities and challenges of a BigCo (Big Company) and build products in a complex environment at scale. Students will also learn about how business development, M&A, and other corporate activities complement, and sometimes compete with product teams to drive larger strategic initiatives forward in BigCos. Students will work in teams matched with a real-world opportunity and advisor from a BigCo. Teams will then build and pitch a working product in three sprints culminating in a final presentation and demo. The class will include lectures and prominent guest speakers from the industry.

BigCos and their products and platforms are increasingly central to our lives, even if you’re a startup (think Gmail, AWS, iOS, and Google Cloud, just to name a few). Chances are you are using one or more BigCo products to read this post. There is a vibrant ecosystem of blogs, books, and information about the startup world but very little practical guidance out there about life in BigCos. We’re looking forward to covering the good, the bad, and the ugly of building products that matter in complex orgs. We’ll be sharing the dark arts of life in a BigCo that we spent the bulk of our careers learning the hard way.

I am particularly excited to be working on this with Bradley, whose professional expertise I respect deeply but also someone I love like a brother. We went through some serious wars at Yahoo! while having an incredible amount of fun. We last worked together in 2008 and since then, Bradley has gone on to run product for some of the most-used consumer products in the world at Google and I joined a little startup called Etsy and grew it into a BigCo. I can’t imagine partnering with someone more suited to the work and it feels like getting a band back together.

If your company is interested in working with our students, first read the How it Works and FAQ sections on the BigCo Studio page and feel free to reach out. If you’re a leader in a BigCo and there’s a topic you really wish students knew more about when they joined your company, let me know. My email is firstname.lastname@cornell.edu.

Saul Bellow on the news

Saul Bellow - It All Adds Up

I can’t remember exactly why I bought this book but several years ago I picked up a collection of Saul Bellow’s essays, It All Adds Up: From the Dim Past to the Uncertain Future. The title of an essay caught my eye — “The Distracted Public” — so I read it last night. Bellow’s comment on the news could have been written yesterday:

I confess that like millions of others, I still need my news fix daily. Civilized people evidently find it necessary to maintain, inwardly, a high level of excitement and are apt to feel that their vital forces must be replenished by headlines.

So it’s politics and murder, famine, planes exploding in flight, drug wars, hostage taking, the latest developments in the superpower drama. The average duration of a scandal or a disaster is not long, and since terrible events are presented by networks whose main focus is diversion, entertainment, quick change, we are always en route to the next shock. It is the agitation level that matters, not this or that enormity. And because we can’t beat distraction, we are inclined to join it. A state of dispersed attention seems to offer certain advantages. It may be compared to a sport like hand gliding. In distraction we are suspended, we hover, we reserve our options.

It’s a good essay largely about the role of the writer in lifting the rest of us above the “moronic inferno” (what an evocative phrase!) of modern life. Notably, this essay was written as a speech that was delivered in 1990, long before Twitter, long before Fox News, and long before the commercial Internet we know today. A lot has changed since then but maybe not as much has changed as we thought.