Five Observations from Making My Home Smart: A beginner’s guide

Intrigued by the barrage of commercials for Nest smart thermostat, I have been testing smart home devices for the past four weeks. It has been a journey, and I finally tried installing the last of the devices on my list: the Yale Z-wave smart lock. Tried and failed, I should say. Below are some notes on my travels in smart home land. Please note that I am not a paid reviewer. All devices I tested were carefully researched by me using public sources, and purchased directly by me on Any external advice I received is explicitly noted.

1. Recency buzz: The concept of the smart home is not a modern year phenomenon. It is not even a modern decade phenomenon. Insteon and other companies have been making connected switches to control your lights, shades, and other household items for several decades. For a good example of an old-timey on/off switch that works by remote control, try the Etekcity ZAP (about $20 for a 3-switch pack with pre-paired remote, It lets you control three outlet switches (and whatever you have plugged into them) via a small remote control. It is completely self-sufficient and does not require a wireless network or hub of any kind. As such it is a great way to try out the smart home experience without doing any other groundwork.

What is modern about today’s smart home devices is the network that is required used to do the controlling. Nowadays, the broad platform of choice is the wireless home network (“WiFi”), and the wireless smart home platform added on top of your WiFi can speak one or more of several languages: zigbee, Z-wave, Bluetooth, and so forth.

2. Platform selection: While the WiFi platform is now standard just about anywhere, the smart home platform is far from it. So one of the first challenges I encountered was deciding which platform to purchase. I ended up choosing SmartThings ($100,; or $200 starter kit), which speaks zigbee as well as Z-wave — as a hedge against a future where (1) one or another language falls out of favor with major manufacturers, resulting in (2) obsolescence of platforms that don’t speak the prevailing language, and (3) terminated development of the accessories and devices that enable the smart home network to grow. Plus, SmartThings was recently acquired by Samsung, so I figured that was a decent sign that the startup would not run out of money. Finally, the SmartThings app is rated highly by the hardcore smart home aficionados that have come before me in this journey.

Side note: Many people compare the developmental path of smart home networks to the historical battle of beta vs. VHS, wherein the technically inferior VHS won out due to industry forces (before losing to DVD). I think it might be like that OR CDMA vs. GSM, where both exist, somewhat uncomfortably.

3. Devices and accessories (aka the cool part): By far, the best part of the whole journey is the satisfaction that comes when I add a new device to my SmartThings network, and it works. It is a simply magical feeling. “And it works” is the important part, though. Sometimes the new thing doesn’t work, and that can spell lots of wasted time and frustration. The worst offender so far has been Yale, whose z-wave smart lock is well reviewed, and positively, on I received what turned out to be a physically defective product, but there was no way I could determine that without knowing what a sound product looked like. So between Yale’s slow email response times and a service organization that only operates on East Coast time, it took THREE WEEKS to get a response. And a crappy one at that — the last response I got from them was written in a form of English I haven’t learned yet. I finally gave up and was quick to take back the broken lock and send me a fresh one in two days. (I also complained about the experience on Twitter, which got a prompt response from @YaleRealLiving. Too little too late. And, maybe the social media help desk should take over the email and phone desks too?)

Alas the story ends poorly. It turns out that the hole for the deadbolt on my door is too small to accommodate the smart lock. So I am sending the replacement lock back to too. I did get it to connect to SmartThings, and had the magical experience of seeing the lock turn and unturn based on a command from my smartphone. But one of the aspects of smart home-ification that feels key to the experience is that I can set things up myself, without procuring power tools or hiring experts. The smart lock definitely required a locksmith, as I was not about to drill a large hole in my door. The lesson here is that smart devices can only show off their smarts AFTER you install them, and the same challenges in physical installation apply for both smart and dumb devices alike. I hear that the August smart lock offers a different — perhaps easier? — experience. Maybe I will try it after I get over feeling deflated from wrestling with the Yale lock.

4. Winners! Sorry to put the complaint before the plaudits. I feel it is useful to embark on the journey with the cold hard facts. As I understand it, the Nest learning thermostat has similar issues as my door lock did — you need an electrician in many if not most cases. But the commercial makes it seem so easy! So new and desirable! So, caveat emptor. And, without further ado here are the winners:

Aeon Labs Z-wave Smart Energy Switch ($30, This is a digital and physical switch for whatever you plug into one end. The other end plugs into your power source. I have my TV/speaker/Xbox power strip plugged into it, so that I can turn on the power strip while sitting on my couch. TVs are notoriously greedy consumers of electricity even when turned off, notes my energy expert friend who runs Carbon Lighthouse. To ward off the resulting “phantom load,” I use a switch to turn on the power strip only when I want to turn on the TV. At $30 on, the switch is the lowest priced that I found, and it both pairs and responds well to the SmartThings app. No more bending down to hit the power strip switch. It stays in the on position, and I use my Aeon switch to feed or cut power to/from it.

GE Link Wireless A19 Smart LED: Controlling my lights digitally was a big attraction for me. Going around to switch off several lights before going to bed was a routine I could do without. Also, there was a prior structural problem I wanted to address, which is that my wall switches do not always control the wall outlets that my lamps are plugged into. Having smart light bulbs means I don’t care where my lamps are plugged, or whether there is a wall switch associated with an outlet. I can simply control the bulbs themselves. I tried both these and the Philips Hue bulbs, and I prefer these. First, they are $15 each instead of $60 (yes $60). The Hue does emit different colors on demand, which is cool, but it really performs best when it is connected to its OWN hub. (Another hub? No thank you.) When on SmartThings, the Hues take two attempts each to turn on or off, even with a firmware upgrade. (More on the firmware upgrade experience later.)

The GE bulb is much more responsive than the Hue. But it does have some frustrating bouts of unresponsiveness that are well documented in the SmartThings Community forum. While cumbersome to do the following, unpairing it from the SmartThings hub, power cycling it to reset it, and then re-adding it does work. I have also used the Aeon Labs switches to control the power into my lamps, using regular CFL or incandescent bulbs. From a reliability perspective, I prefer the switch method. However, I don’t have this option with bathroom lights so I put up with the occasional fritzing of the GE Link bulbs.

SmartThings starter kit: The $199 starter kit came with the hub, a multisenser (a motion detector bundled with temperature and humidity sensers), a door open/close senser, and a presence fob. The kit is like a basic box of Legos: it’s a nice set of components to start playing with if you want to do more than control your switches and lights per the above. In particular, the multisenser ($50, if purchased separately) is pretty cool. It lets me use motion as a way to trigger on the lights I have set up on my SmartThings network. For instance, my partner frequently forgets to turn off his closet light. We now have a GE Link bulb as the closet light, and a motion senser to turn it on when he walks in. A minute after no motion is detected, the light turns itself off. At $65 ($50 for the senser, $15 for the bulb) this solution is probably more costly than the occasional waste of keeping the light on for hours while not in use. What this solution has on the traditional bulb and manual switch is the magical feeling of the automatic light turning on upon your arrival. The feeling is not unlike someone opening the door for you (or the door opening automatically) upon your approach — it is just nice. The door open/close senser offers a similar convenience. You can use it to trigger on a switch, be it a light, set of lights, or another switch. Or, you can use it in the simplest way possible: monitor whether your front door is open or closed, or stays open for longer than x minutes. For me, it is a very basic security system. When the door opens, I get a push notification on my SmartThings app. I can also set the device to send out a text message alerting me to the same. The presence senser scares me a bit, and I will address that shortly.

Sonos Play:1 ($200, Talk about magical. Adding a speaker to my SmartThings network has turned my home into a Siri like creature that talks to me. There are several Sonos smart apps available on SmartThings, and I have tried two. The first is to announce the weather, based on a triggering event or action. I have mine set to speak tomorrow’s weather forecast for my zip code, after 10pm when motion is detected in my living room. The voice gives a succinct forecast without my having to look it up. Nice! The second function I have set up is to play custom messages based on triggering events. When we turn off the TV switch, the Sonos now informs us, “A TV needs to sleep sometimes” — a remark that inspires giggles every time. I also set up a farewell message to air when the front door is first opened each day. This audible part of the smart home experience is really fun. I don’t know what else I want the Sonos to say, but I am on the lookout. Beyond being my home’s audible voice, the Sonos also serves as an excellent portable speaker AND manager of our music. The free Sonos app has the ability to pull tunes from both iTunes and Spotify (and others) into a seamless music stream, and unlike iTunes, allows for the queuing of tracks. It is a deceptively simple and magical device + music software, and I would recommend the Play:1 regardless of whether or not you intend to set up a smart home network. Thanks to consumer electronics DIYer MBD, il miglior fabbro, for tipping me off to the Sonos line of products. I gotta save up my pocket change to try more.

5. Yikes!!! As hinted above, I had a couple of moments when I wondered if I should shut down my entire SmartThings network. While struggling to get my Philips Hue bulbs to respond to my SmartThings app commands, I emailed the SmartThings help desk (which is wonderfully responsive, clear, and thorough) to confirm that my firmware was the most current, and to receive an update if needed. (I later learned that I could have done this myself through my app, but this way was far more instructive as to the security issues of playing with a smart home setup.) Within an hour, I got a reply that not only was my firmware not up to date, but that the friendly agent had gone ahead and pushed out an update. So far so good — I also have a cable TV provider that can do virtual diagnostics and push upgrades, so that didn’t seem awry. Then, he said (paraphrased), “I see you have your Hue bulbs set up directly on SmartThings. I recommend using the Philips hub for improved performance.”

Yikes!!! In that moment, I realized that those very helpful folks could look into my entire smart home setup. That is a lot of information about my home, sitting out in — who knows where the help desk is located or who has access to it. Information is power. Used to help improve my setup, like the firmware upgrade, sharing intimate details about my home setup can be helpful to me. But in the hands of someone who wants to help themselves at my cost — well, the same information could be used to determine whether or not anyone is home in the horror story of the social media- or smart home-qualified empty-home burglary. Knowing this, I felt torn. Once I produce the information, I don’t really have control over where it goes. Heck, I don’t even have control over who gets a hold of my credit card number these days (here’s looking at you, Target, Home Depot, Neiman Marcus, Bank of America, and others)!

Based on this awareness, I decided to definitely not use the presence senser, which can hang on a key chain or bag and let your home know when you are home. The presence senser lets you set up convenient actions like triggering the TV or Sonos to turn on automatically when you arrive, and turn off when you leave. I then wondered whether to further limit my exposure by removing the motion senser from the living room, or to take down the SmartThings network entirely. I have not done either yet, mostly because I live in a high rise condo building with full time security, thereby limiting my exposure to the broader elements. But I may change my mind. I feel a little queasy thinking about the what ifs.

Was all this “worth it”? Depends on what you mean. The journey was tremendously educational, both technically and practically. I am inclined to comment, offhand, that:

1. There is no such thing as pure progress in the smart home game. I gained convenience and my home got ‘cooler,’ but I gave away a lot of information in exchange.

2. Just because a household device is “smart” does not mean it is easier to install. Whatever you would normally hire an expert for, you will likely need or at least have on call when installing a smart home version of it. I hobbled through a smart wall switch installation with the help of a YouTube crash course on electricity, but it definitely felt like traipsing through the jungle. While I took all known precautions, I was concerned about electrocuting myself and others. Moreover, my handiwork certainly does not compare to an expert’s wisdom of years and practiced hands.

3. There is a long way to go before prime time. I am a pretty experienced user of consumer electronics. I do my own set up of smart TVs, speakers, printers, repeaters, etc. I regularly restore my own laptop to factory settings and re-add everything to improve performance. I write a little html and C, and can probably still debug my old VB Script in Excel. So, technical enough, but not an engineer by any means. I am more of a logician, but after a while, I did tire of the incessant If This Then That (IFTTT) logic that is required to properly set up each device on the smart home network. IFTTT is a form of simple programming, and not difficult to execute. But to make all your devices work as expected, you have to specifically instruct them. Let’s say you want to set up the following: “If I come home between the hours of 6am and 10am, on Monday, Wednesday, or Friday, make the Sonos play Gershwin and turn on the kitchen light.” First, you have to think through all that so you can express it. Then you have to figure out how to input the right selections on the SmartThings app, so your IFTTT command executes properly. Both halves of that can be headache-inducing. Bottom line: You can’t just plug in smart home devices and expect them to work, like you plug in a toaster or coffee maker. After a while, I wanted my smart things to just work.

And honestly, some of what goes on in the SmartThings community forums makes my mouth hang open. Not that I don’t think I can figure out how to fiddle with the firmware on my hub or write my own apps. But consumer electronics are sold ready to perform the likely or most desirable use cases, not ready to be programmed by the consumer to do so. As others have remarked, this field is still very much a land of rich hobbyists.


What matters most in your post-MBA career

Credit to ARUP/Tim Griffith

Credit to ARUP/Tim Griffith

In May, I attended the five year reunion of my MBA graduating class. If the two years we all spent on our degrees were an investment in our personal and professional potential, then five years out gives a good look at the range of outcomes. And the outcomes were unbelievably broad. There were:

  • Personal changes like relocation, buying and selling homes, dating and marriage and divorce, having a baby and having another, departures of loved ones, gains and losses in health — the list goes on
  • Professional outcomes, whether new roles and companies, starting or ending a new venture, all at various frequencies — or even no change
  • Physical changes too, with folks taking on the palpable look and feel of where they are in their personal and professional lives: more serious, less irreverent, more confident, less uncertain, what have you, and the years being kinder to some than others.

The permutations that happened over five years were simply stunning.

I was recently asked to represent my summary observations from reunion to some current second-year students who hope to look ahead a bit to their post-grad lives. I think their question deserved a better answer than the searching, wandering one I gave. So I’d like to try again. Here is what I think should “matter most” to people who are graduating from a top MBA program and considering what is next. I rarely articulate my perspectives in terms of “should,” but I feel fairly strongly about these and will do so here.

First, here are two assumptions I make:

  • You are ambitious, smart, and capable. You wouldn’t be where you are otherwise. Maybe the people around you also fit this description, and you feel comparatively less qualified. Pish posh. You deserve the distinction equally. Don’t second guess yourself.
  • You intend to unleash your ambition, smarts, and capable self upon your life and career. This is critical. You have to want it, whatever it may be. Here, I assume that you want to have a rockstar career (and life!), whatever form it takes.

Assuming these are true, here are the top two attributes you should look for in your opening act post MBA:

  1. Meaningful extensions of your core skills and experience. The MBA was classroom learning (for the most part); the post-MBA is the practicum. Case-based learning provides simulations of well-stylized business decisions that actually happened in ways that were far messier than able to be retold in a 10-page case with 5 neat exhibits. Real business stories don’t usually unfold the neat way they are narrated in cases. The judgment critical to being a good manager has to do with what kind of information should be an ‘exhibit,’ and how to get at that data so you can make some decisions around it. (“What matters most and why.”)

    You’re great at stuff already. You proved it in numerous ways to earn your spot in b-school, and your recommenders went to bat for you too. People believe in you. And now it’s time to take on some things that you haven’t exactly proven you’re great at — yet. You know best what ways you must grow in order to become like the alums or leaders you most admire and aspire toward. Those gaps are what you should endeavor to fill, and the bigger the gap, the better the opportunity to grow. If the thing you’re considering has you a little scared, that’s probably a good sign that the challenge is meaningful.

  2. Adding your talent and energy to a team that can win. Unless you have an overriding commitment to a particular industry, region, or firm, the most important filter in your decision is whether the team you’re about to join can win. I’ve heard a variant of this idea expressed before, but in a way that did not resonate: “It doesn’t matter what you do after business school; just find a company that is growing and take any job.” It does matter what you do; moreover, taking any job in any growing company sounds so devoid of passion.

    Which brings us to the maddening question of what you are passionate about. Like asking a child what s/he wants to be when s/he grows up, the notion of professional passion lays a cognitive trap. For children, the answer comes back as people they are familiar with: teacher, fireman, grocery store clerk. For MBAs, the answer comes back as industries that are lucrative, trendy, or generally known: private equity, cleantech (although last I heard it is now sustainable farming), or whatever industry we came from (for me it was restaurants). I respectfully submit that unless you already have it, passion per industry or job is a search not worth conducting.

    What I think matters most to the post-MBA experience is getting a taste for winning at the management level, regardless of industry, location, or company. Most of us who enter into elite MBA programs are generalists in the sense that we could be great at a lot of things, if only we chose to do them. So why restrict yourself along those lines? Granted it can be convenient to look for what’s next by sector or by geography, because that is how the recruiting world is organized. But in going for your MBA, you took a non-linear jump in your career; why not take a non-linear leap in your departure too? Much like a seat on a top MBA roster, a spot on a winning team is a very nice get.

    Now here’s the magical part: Winning teams tend to foster passion. A passion for success and excellence is easy to embrace; instead of looking for an industry or job to be passionate about, why not let passion suffuse the results you help create? And then take your win and go make another win? A track record of winning makes for a great career. So find some winning teams and join the one you like best. Then work your heart out to make some wins.

My conclusion across all the permutations of personal, professional, and physical lives among my classmates is thus: winning is a great look on anyone and transfers well across industries, locations, and personal choices. In your post-MBA, go get some stretch experiences and make some good wins. You’ll find your passions there.

Consultant vs. Operator: Lessons in Impact

Project Management ImageWhen I started my MBA at Stanford in 2007, the typical career paths leading into and out of business school — consultant (or professional services), operator, and investor — seemed largely equal. A matter of taste more than anything else. Coming from a professional services role within an operating company that had public shareholders as investors, I wanted to parlay my MBA into trying my hand at being an operator or investor. More precisely, I figured I could become a successful operator, and then build toward being a successful investor.

Professional services career paths often lead into MBA programs, and I think they are great ways to transition out of college and into “business.” I can think of few more stimulating paths that pay as well, and none that provide better training on business operations and market economics. For me, the professional services path started at a top business school, where I researched cases and wrote them up for class consumption. The job led to a consulting-y role at a publicly-traded restaurant company, where I did project management and research to support the executive team. Working there made me really want to be an executive (loosely, an “operator”).

At the time, my reasoning was that the operator created value in companies in a direct manner, while what I did in support of real operators impacted business results indirectly. In retail, we say that nothing happens in the business until a cashier rings up a sale. I wanted to be on the side that figured out how to ring up more sales and better sales. As I entered business school as a student, I was determined to be one step closer to the action, rather than staying on the side of those supporting the people who took the actions.

As I look back, my preference was less in wanting to be a part of the action, and more in wanting to direct the action. In polite company, girls aren’t supposed to want to be in charge. But that desire is an important driver of horsepower in operating leadership. When things fall into a poor pattern, it is tempting and easy to capitulate or to blame circumstances (the people, the industry, the competitors, the climate, what have you). One must have a certain drive to take the responsibility for results regardless of what all is going on and lead the charge in getting teams out of ruts, so that the pattern is growth and success rather than stagnation. These ruts happen frequently in the normal cycle of businesses, so a healthy sense of take-chargeness is useful to have.

This is something I learned to appreciate only after becoming an operator — a Co-CEO to be precise. Streaks and ruts are part of my job, and what I am responsible for managing.

When I was writing business cases, I had some satisfaction in interviewing the top eight or ten executives of a company, interweaving their stories into a cogent whole, and publishing it as curriculum. Watching my work being taught was the icing on the cake, especially if the inaugural teaching went well. I drove the work product, and the feeling of winning was both palpable and clear cut. If I kept winning, I could keep the streak going.

As Co-CEO, these clear cut moments of satisfaction are rare. They happen when we report a strong month, or show growth in a key metric that the team has been working hard to improve. But I don’t personally drive this success the way I used to drive my cases. The nature of operating companies is that the work production is shared, so the wins are shared.

Shared wins feel great — they imbue a magical esprit de corps upon the whole team. They can also lack a certainty around attribution and ownership, as it is tricky to figure out who did exactly what and to what extent to drive the win. In all cases, I know it wasn’t me, so much as it was the team. As such, that feeling of personal ownership that I felt as a casewriter and even as an ‘assistant to-‘ has been replaced by a necessary trust of the team.

What I’ve learned is that winning in previous professional services roles was about my doing my work well. Winning as an executive-operator is about helping our team do its work well: defining roles, setting goals and rewards, providing coaching and feedback, celebrating successes (and mourning losses) — in a somewhat cyclical, non-linear fashion. For just as soon as we report a winning month or quarter, the next period of measurement has already begun, and it’s time to up our game.

This has been one of the most important shifts in my understanding from professional service provider to operator. My derivative sense of impact in professional services that led me to choose an operating role has, ironically, yielded to a derivative sense of effectiveness. Put another way, I still rely on others to drive the wins. The difference is that instead of doing the analysis on behalf of the executive team, I consume and employ the analysis to help my team produce strong results. The real win in being in charge is in the successful enablement of others — and that has been a powerful lesson.

Simple Personal Investment Model

MungerThe genesis of this post is a transcript of Charlie Munger’s comments at USC twenty years ago. It’s rather long and chatty, but I managed to slog through the whole 90 yards. Munger provided some insight into investment objectives and constraints at Berkshire Hathaway that I had not known and found useful.

For example, Berkshire must make large investments, given the sheer size of the fund. Its size limits the commitments its managers can time-effectively consider. It does not invest in technology companies. Munger openly states that he and Buffett don’t know much about technology and further, do not invest in tech wave companies — companies that grow by riding a big tech spurt or trend. Both small and tech are out for Berkshire Hathaway. That is part of Buffett and Munger’s “Model.”

I’m a small time investor, choosing only one or so stock to put my IRA cash into, once every few years. I have never thought of my investments as having a strategy. Nor do I profess to having a model. But lately I have begun to think that I do have a model — albeit an unarticulated one. My investments have been in only a handful of companies: Panera Bread (where I worked), 7-Eleven (which I wrote a case on), Nordstrom (which I wrote a case on), Clearwire (about whose interim Chairman I worked on a case), Apple (which was founded in my hometown of Cupertino, CA) and Wet Seal (which I researched while writing a note on women’s apparel).

Obviously I like to invest in companies I have learned something about. And I have learned from each investment: Panera went through some trouble with food cost while I was there, and the stock price reflected that. When I went to business school, the stock was not performing well, and I eventually sold at a loss in order to pay tuition. In hindsight, now that the stock has recovered, I wonder if I ought to have taken out a low interest loan in order to maintain my position. Therein lies lesson number one: I don’t like being in debt. I suppose if I had thought about it, I would have known that Panera is a stable company with good management that would figure it out. Plus, markets go up, markets go down. But I didn’t like being in debt, and I had already taken out loans to be in school. There’s some risk intolerance there. I sold Apple at the end of business school for essentially the same reason. If I had held it, I could have purchased a Tesla Roadster with the proceeds.

7-Eleven, Clearwire, and Wet Seal are three of a kind. I purchased them all because I liked the management changes happening at each. The difference in return ended up being how long I held them. I purchased a large lot of Wet Seal at $0.90 a share, and it rapidly rose to $9. At that point, I probably should have sold. I bought at rock bottom, which itself is hard to do, largely by accident and faith. But I lacked any sense of when to sell, so I held. 7-Eleven and Clearwire I held until I was forced to sell in an acquisition of the entity. 7-Eleven was before business school, and I did well — but not as well as I would have if I had sold on the speculative open market just before the tender offer was completed. Clearwire was after business school, and I hung on through to the tender offer, hoping for a 7-Eleven-like outcome. (It was.)

Nordstrom, I made a modest profit on after writing the Harvard Business School case on its turnaround effort, which I believed in.

I used to think that I should make a great many more investments, rather than holding money market or index fund balances at times when I don’t know where to put cash. But I found that sometimes having cash enabled me to make bigger bets on things I believed in. If I hadn’t had cash, I likely would have missed the Clearwire opportunity. Munger offered a second reason that not being invested is ok: big bets come along infrequently. He asks if we had a punchcard with only 20 holes, one per potential investment in our lifetimes, which would we make? There’s something gratifying about external validation and I certainly felt some relief at his remarks.

More so than that, I felt challenged to define and aggressively pursue an investment thesis of my own. I am mindful that the country is underfunded in Social Security and that individual Americans are underfunding their retirement accounts. I’ve decided that I’d like not to be a poor older person, so I primarily invest my IRA funds in search of long term growth. I still prefer investing a large amount in one company at a time, and actively monitoring the commitment until it is time to sell. I don’t plan to become a professional stock picker, so one at a time seems about as much as I can comfortably handle. Beyond that, I would like to keep to my practice of investing in companies I know with some depth. Maybe I am a customer, maybe I am a researcher or business writer, maybe I know something about its management team. Whatever ‘it’ is, I would like to have the confidence that it is both doing a best-in-class job, and heading somewhere better.

This isn’t much of a model for an investment fund. But for my private future, run out of my kitchen table trading desk, I’m ok for now.

On Corporate Change

I’m told that in high performing organizations like Google, change is near constant, with roles changing weekly in certain groups. I believe it. In my last sixteen months as co-head of a now-thriving senior care technology company, only one thing has remained constant: change.

Managing a turnaround company implies change – oft forced and tumultuous change. ‘Force’ exits those who no longer have a place on the ship; ‘tumult’ sweeps out even those who are invited to stay.

Those who were asked to stay and have hung on – well, they are twice anointed, by skill and by perseverance both. The select few who are part of this group at my company evoke my fond admiration. They are, to paraphrase Darwin, the fittest. They have survived because they are most adaptive to change.

On the outside, the company my partner and I encountered was in good condition. Stable revenues and favorable demographics suggested imminent growth. On the inside, a byzantine organizational structure and convoluted processes revealed a tangled overgrowth that would not be easy to tame. But pruning was what we were hired to do, and pruning was necessary so the company could liberate its hidden profitability. The question was how.

The answer was not at all clear. In the final analysis, I’m not sure if there was a right way, nor what rightness holds dear. The way we proceeded was to examine the organization for a good month. Leveraging my background as a business casewriter and my partner’s background in general management and sales, we spent time meeting virtually everyone in the company, and understanding what they did.

The month of understanding might have been akin to Hillary Clinton’s listening tour of New York State before being elected its junior U.S. Senator. One our tour ended, we were overwhelmed: there was so much we wanted to change. Yet there would be no way we could undertake all at once. The question became refined: what mattered most? In what order would we proceed?

Roughly, what we chose to do followed this order. There was no grand strategy, though true to our MBA roots, we did try to build one. What we found when we did so is that we could not predict what each wave of change would bring, thereby rendering the plan useless. One messy wave begat the next.

1. Streamline the physical enterprise: It was coincidental that Marissa Mayer became CEO of the turnaround technology company Yahoo! at around the same time we stepped to the helm of our company. Her decision to end work-from-home and flextime arrangements was mirrored by our own similar decision to consolidate offices, close the company’s outposts, and largely end non-standard work arrangements.

The reasoning was simple: the company needed to pull together and reassess its people, its processes, and its culture in order to change its course. In this time, accommodating individual preferences meant that the greater agenda slowed to the pace of its most remote and least available members. A favorite quote from the series The West Wing is that “Decisions are made by those who show up.” This wave of change can be summarized as asking those who did not or could not show up (or showed up late) to step away from the proverbial table.

This first wave of change caused massive upheaval in the company, the depths of which I will not address here. Both major offices fell into tumult as the rumor mill went into hyperdrive. Reports of some departed employees whispering falsehoods by phone into the anxious ears of actual employees abounded. The game of telephone took hold. Prevailing wisdom held that the company would be shut down.

The PR battle was a difficult one to fight in that there was not an obvious thing to strike down. The rumors undermined our credibility and made us appear worthy of mistrust. In hindsight, I don’t blame anyone for believing this nonsense. In a hurricane, it must surely feel like the ship will go down.

2. No more I won’t dos. Once the first storm had more or less passed, we declared the remaining team the Go Forward Team. We felt some pressure to announce this, in an attempt to usher in some relief – a sense of calm and stability so everyone could focus on their jobs. We also wanted to believe it. But as soon as we said so, the next wave of needed change presented itself.

In the streamlined operation, four groups of people rather neatly emerged in a McKinseyan two-by-two matrix: on one axis, the Can Dos and Can’t Dos. On the other, the Will Dos and Won’t Dos. It was painfully obvious that growth required a certain set of skills that were not important in the previous organization, but were important now. It was also clear that no strong company could be built on a founding team of Can’t or Won’t Dos.

My partner was keen on asking the Won’t Dos to leave for better shores, as the Won’t Dos by definition won’t be governed. I was attuned to the implausibility of building a strong team around those who, by lack of training or smarts, could not do what we needed to accomplish. (As a sidenote, I am, after this experience, a strong believer in investing in STEM course education in the United States at the primary school level.)

The Won’t Do departures were, for me, emotionally easier to decide, though they were sometimes much harder to complete. The Can’t Do departures were, for my partner, very difficult. He invested considerable time and thought into converting those in this group to the Can Do camp. But as we both learned, decades of (un)learning is difficult to reverse in a matter of weeks. After a lot of effort tragically wasted, we were forced to give up and ask these folks to also move on. Many were wonderful and kind, and unfortunately left discouraged. I wish them well.

3. The Era of Role Definition. Let me start by saying that even if you have a team of excellent individuals who Can and Will do what the turnaround team needs, they will fail unless they know what their roles are and aren’t. Let me also add that it’s really hard to define the roles in a time of great change, because as soon as you define the role, it’s time to redefine it. It goes a little something like this:

When you step into a role in a company, the Job Description is a best attempt at putting some definition around what you should focus your energies on. The JD isn’t built with you in mind, so it can’t predict what you’ll end up really being good at, and what you’ll grow toward. You outgrow the JD almost as soon as you join the company. In a turnaround company, this is happening while the company’s needs are rapidly changing too. As soon as you show skill in a particular area, you might ‘win’ more work that is way outside of your original JD because the company now needs it to be done. If you fail at the job you were hired to do, you might be asked to take on something rather different – both because it turns out you’re not a fit for the original role and because the company needs you somewhere else. The tumult continues!

I have written and revamped dozens of JDs in the company so far, and I do it myself, with my partner’s help. A departed employee once remarked (rather haughtily) that as Co-CEO I really shouldn’t concern myself with such work. But in spite of the imminent obsolescence of the resulting JDs, the thinking behind the writing forms the backbone of the new organization. The thinking forces me to get clear on what I want someone to do. The writing is only printed expression of what each person is charged to do, so that my intentions are clear to them too. In a stable company, the JD is likely a formality, or perhaps a legal document. In a turnaround, it may be a source of stability in a sea of change.

(Process documents are in a similar bucket as JDs. As soon as they are defined, they may need to be redefined or thrown out. And yet they serve a valuable purpose.)

4. Performance Culture. This is where we are now – yet another wave of change. We need to tighten up our operations so we can deliver better results. This is probably like buying a ship and trying to make it hold more cargo and go faster: there are probably a million ways to go about it. On our ship, we now get to try things that have become possible with the team we have: cross-functional managers are dispatched to drive better performance throughout the organization, an employee committee gathers great ideas from the team at large and works to implement them, and several different sales techniques are yielding exciting and actionable results.

The Road Not Taken

I’m proud of the team we’ve got, and their ability to weather the current ripples of change. They are among the fittest colleagues I can hope for. And yet by my nostalgic nature, I sometimes contemplate the many departed faces from my partner’s and my team. I wonder if we could have stayed co-workers in a different company, at a different time.

It would likely surprise these former teammates that in most cases, my answer is yes. A high-performance company in stable times can accommodate organizational sprawl and flexible work arrangements. Cruising calm waters at a good clip allows for tightly defined roles that let people to do exactly what they want to do and are good at, and only that.

This company will achieve that stability someday. Right now, the company is focused on driving high performance. Change is the only way to achieve the goal of being fittest of them all.

What’s the matter with being busy?

Arar_55C4912 5x7 6-6-14Everybody seems busy these days. Last month, as three close girlfriends and I tried to pick a date for my birthday dinner, we ran out of options that were within a week before or after the actual date. One person dropped out to make the selection easier. Then another almost did, but chose to come instead of joining her husband and his visiting brother for another dinner. A miscommunication or two later, I arrived at the Japanese restaurant with my husband in tow, to find one friend out for a walk around the block, and the other running 20 minutes late. (She eventually arrived on Uber X.)

This, mind you, is a typical effort at finding a ‘date night’ for the four of us. Our attempts to schedule regularly hit the 100 or so emails that is the limit for a single thread in Gmail. This is not because any of us thinks we are so important. We each lead relatively straightforward lives: employed, and paired with no children. We have engaging jobs and we have thrown ourselves into them: one as a specialist in organizational development, another as a retail-focused venture capitalist, and another as a product manager at Google. Each of us travels, each of us works early and ends late in our various pursuits (both career-related and extracurricular), each of us is pretty darn busy. And, I have never seen any of us happier than where we are now.

I’m not sure if we are the exception or the rule to the phenomenon I have heard called “yuppie kvetching”: moaning about how one is so busy and has no time to do what one really wants to do. In our ten years of friendship, which began as members of an Asian American women’s mentoring and leadership non-profit in Boston, we have only become yuppier. We now somehow all live and work in the San Francisco Bay Area, each having earned top MBAs. And as we approach our mid-30s, talk of children and homebuying have trickled in to our once every other month or so gatherings. Our partners (is what we tend to call our male others) tend to have advanced degrees, as we do, and work as our counterparts in status, pay, or both.

But we don’t do a lot of kvetching.

I can certainly recall times when one or the other of us has complained about something that the others counsel her through. They tend to revolve around a tension between broad life aspirations and immediate choices. To stay in a job that isn’t rewarding or to take a leap into the unknown; to stick around in a relationship that doesn’t work or to break away and look for one that is more right; to take a job that is more sexy or more of a fit – these are what our conversations center around. There isn’t a lot of time for kvetching; we are busy pursuing what we want our lives to be about.

I don’t mean to turn the notion of yuppie kvetching on its head; I just really appreciate this other type of busy that I see among my girlfriends. I believe in industry over sloth, busy over idle. It seems patently obvious that if I am going to be industrious or busy, it should be in service of something that I want in life: some sort of accomplishment, a purpose greater than myself, or something otherwise gratifying. Being busy while having lost sight of its meaning – well that seems worthy of serious examination, not kvetching.

As a woman of a certain age, I observe that gendered conversations about being busy verge on talk of an elusive good called “balance.” Frankly, the focus on “balance” in a woman’s life strikes a discordant tone. “Balance” does not feel very useful in itself. As far as I can recall, it’s a lack of balance that allows a mere human to achieve beyond what is as expected, or in the mean. Extraordinary achievements are fueled by incredible dedication and service to what one is trying to get done. And since nobody is Wonder Woman or Superman, that often means not doing as much of the other stuff that one also likes.

Some people call this lack of balance a sacrifice. I call it a tradeoff, or perhaps just choice. The inflection is probably a reflection on how one feels about the tradeoff. For example, my mother would likely call my decision to not have children (yet) a sort of sacrifice. Or perhaps a ‘delay.’ But thanks to norms in my peer group, which has yet to have children in large numbers, I don’t feel behind or delayed. I like that I was able to devote all of my 20s to developing and honing my skills as a manager, and that an opportunity to lead a mid-sized turnaround company presented itself in my early 30s. I would like to end my 30s continuing along this path. And, I would like to make the adjustments that enable me to partake of the joys of motherhood.

In looking back at my post-high school years, I’m aware of what I did not choose ‘for’; I do not think I chose ‘against’ those paths per se. At 23, I leapt at an opportunity to work for a CEO whose life work I admired and wanted to aid and learn from. It led me away from a different opportunity to contribute to the business canon – a book about the history of American department stores. As I went to graduate school at 26, I recognized that I was crossing the average age of marriage for American women. I had been blessed with an opportunity to choose the marriage path some months prior, but I chose ‘for’ business school instead. Both paths are well trod, as in the classic American Frost poem where two paths diverge in a wood. I chose the one that I wanted more, and it has led me down other paths of tremendous busyness, and also crushing downtime.

Right now, I am in a busy time. Today, as I briskly navigated the extra-long terminal B at Denver’s airport on a layover, I wished I could somehow tie my rolley bag handle to my waist so I could check email on my phone while walking. I looked for the most caloric salad I could buy at the takeaway deli, so I could land at LaGuardia, fetch my rental car, and get on the road to Williamsport without having to stop at McDonald’s. Turning around a once-troubled company that contributes a meaningful service to society – this is the life I have signed up for. It’s busy as hell and I love it.

Going down with your ship (or the ship you are on)

Like millions oSewolf people around the world and especially in my native South Korea, I have been transfixed by the stream of tragic updates to the sunken ferry Sewol off the southwestern coast of Korea, near Jindo. Today’s news is particularly poignant: a pair of high school students were found in a passenger stairwell, each wearing a life jacket. Of the two clasps on each jacket, one was properly fastened to hold the jacket in place; the other was tied to the other jacket, holding the young boy and girl together in their slumber.

I recall the scene from the movie Titanic that brought the most tears to my 16 year old eyes, the first time I watched the epic: Macy’s Department Store co-owner and US Congressman Isidor Straus and his wife Ida, who refused to leave the ship without each other. They are last portrayed in the movie lying side-by-side in a narrow bed as the icy water rises around them.

The story is more complicated than that, as it always is. In this case, the story is decidedly more heroic, while maintaining its loyal and romantic tenor. Here is an excerpt from Isidor Straus’s Wikipedia entry:

Once it was clear Titanic was sinking, Ida refused to leave Isidor and would not get into a lifeboat without him… According to friend and Titanic survivor Colonel Archibald Gracie IV, upon seeing that Ida was refusing to leave her husband, he offered to ask a deck officer if Isidor and Ida could both enter a lifeboat together. Isidor was reported to have told Colonel Gracie in a firm tone: “I will not go before the other men.” Ida insisted her newly hired English maid, Ellen Bird, get into lifeboat #8. She gave Ellen her fur coat stating she would not be needing it. Ida is reported to have said, “I will not be separated from my husband. As we have lived, so will we die, together.” Isidor and Ida were last seen on deck arm in arm. Eyewitnesses described the scene as a “most remarkable exhibition of love and devotion.” Both died on April 15 when the ship sank at 2:20 am.

In sharp contrast is the Sewol captain’s decision on the morning of April 16 to abandon his ship in advance of its sinking and well in advance of his passengers’ escape. He, and other members of the crew, have been labeled “murderers“and “cowards.” Given the tremendous loss of lives, most of them 16 and 17 year old high schoolers on a field trip, it is not hard to understand why. The captain and 22* of his 29 crew who survived the disaster will forever be known as those who went before the children. (*A caveat that some of the 22 who survived were saved while attempting to rescue others from the doomed ship.)

A friend who is a former investment banker observes that people tend to make deals based on fear or greed — or both. As the ship showed signs of a rapid descent into the dark and rapid current (I recall the waters between Jeju Island and Jindo as being particularly frightening, even from the distant perch of my hotel balcony), I imagine the captain’s decision to abandon ship was fueled by similar impulses. If he knew what was at stake — that the entire connected world would put him on trial in the court of public opinion and find him guilty, over and over again — maybe he would have stayed and done the honorable thing: let the children get off before him.

(Or maybe not. In the end, perhaps he would deem preservation of his physical self to be worth the shame of public guilt; I don’t know.)

In the long wake of the disaster, much has been made of whether or not Korea has a law barring captains from abandoning ship before passengers disembark. (For the record, the country apparently does have such a law, and it will likely provide a legal basis for Captain Lee’s prosecution.) Captain Lee himself has suggested that his long tenure and superior navigation skills would have averted the disaster, pointedly placing the blame on his relatively inexperienced twenty-something third mate. To my eye, these discussions divert our global attention from the greater issues of Lee’s humanity and fitness to lead.

Elie Wiesel defines humanity by the presence of gratitude and compassion. In the case of Captain Lee, I find myself fixed on the absence thereof — where one would hope to find a full measure of both, all I see are fear and greed. People who behave as he did roam the earth; they always have. They are often kind-hearted and well-liked. But they should not lead. Because when they choose poorly between gratitude and greed, compassion and fear, we all pay the price as their lives become swiftly defined. Leadership is never satisfied by the technical ability to do the job. It does not necessarily grow with age or experience. It requires vigilant judgment and fierce wisdom, particularly when the waters get rough.

As I mourn the young couple whose discovery hearkens the touching legend of Mr. and Mrs. Straus, so also I mourn the death of Captain Lee: his sterling four-decade reputation of service and kindness were buried last week beneath the enormity of his decision to abandon the children on his ship. And as I continue to obsessively track the excruciating process of recovering and delivering children’s broken bodies to their grieving parents, I’ll close with a short passage about the Strauses:

Isidor Straus’s body was recovered by the cable ship Mackay-Bennett and brought to Halifax, Nova Scotia where it was identified before being shipped to New York. Ida’s body was never found. Isidor and Ida are memorialized on a cenotaph outside the mausoleum with a quote from the Song of Solomon (8:7): “Many waters cannot quench love – neither can the floods drown it.”

What irony — they stayed on that ship and became immortal.