Who Is This Murphy Guy?

Suppose you are an entrepreneur who is seeking start-up funding for a terrific idea you have. You do your homework and put together a solid business plan. Market research shows a lot of upside. Then you pitch your idea to a group of investors and hear the following observations, “I’m concerned that it would be very easy for a competitor to take this idea and run with it faster than you will.” Or, “you are projecting revenues to grow at a 25% rate per quarter for the first three years. Do you seriously believe this can be accomplished?” And finally, “your burn rate seems pretty low – in my experience a rate double what you suggest would seem more appropriate.” What do these statements and questions represent? If you said “skepticism,” you are correct.

Skepticism can be a healthy thing for entrepreneurs and non-entrepreneurs alike. In 1987, Ronald Reagan made his famous “trust but verify” statement about a treaty with the then-Soviet Union. This is a great guidepost for us where skepticism is kept in a positive perspective. Part of advancing new ideas is to have them challenged. A lot of questions are to be expected, many of which may be doubting in nature. This is good – if our ideas can survive rigorous scrutiny and we can provide evidence that is sufficient to prove our case, everyone wins.

There’s a very fine line between the kind of skepticism that is all about looking for answers or proof, and that which questions veracity or integrity. When others become suspicious of our motives, we’ve entered dangerous territory for now we’re on the border of “cynicism.” Cynics suspect that others are motivated by self-interest and at times exhibit varying degrees of paranoia. When cynicism exists in an organization it’s like a cancer. The attitude of a cynic is negative. I believe that cynics are related to Murphy – you know, the Murphy of Murphy’s Law . . . anything that can go wrong will go wrong. Cynics are often denigrating, disapproving, apprehensive, sarcastic, and like to run other people down. You can see why cynics and their cynicism are so unproductive for any organization or institution.

Let’s juxtapose the skeptic and the cynic in our previous example of the start-up seeking funding. I already provided statements and questions that might have been made from a skeptical point of view. Now, here is what the cynic might say. “This idea is unoriginal and doesn’t stand a chance to succeed. Why are you pitching this to us? I’ll bet you’re going to take our money; buy a few computers; have a big party; shut down your company, and leave us holding the bag!” Not one positive thing was said there. And all of the various cynical tendencies were on full display – sarcasm, suspicion, bitterness, paranoia, and disapproval. Sure this may be a bit over-dramatized. But the illustration shows the stark contrast that is important to understand.

We need to maintain a certain dose of skepticism lest we suffer too large a degree of naïveté. Skepticism can be difficult for some entrepreneurs. We are optimists and have powerfully positive mindsets. There may be times when we aren’t interested in looking at the downside of our ideas. That’s why it’s critical that we have people on our team who exhibit a higher level of skepticism. And we must give them permission to prod and probe while expressing their skepticism in a constructive manner. Skeptics serve the entrepreneur well as a counterbalance to wild, pie-in-the-sky unrealistic notions. On the other hand, we must constantly be on the lookout for cynics and eliminate them when they surface.

Embracing healthy skepticism helps to build a better and more sustainable organization. Denying cynicism before it takes root is equally important to the long-term success of whatever it is that we are pursuing.

You can also listen to a weekly audio podcast of my blog. What you hear will be different than what you read in this blog. Subscribe on iTunes or wherever you get your podcasts. You can also click on this link – Click here to listen to Audio Episode 63 – Go Away – We’re Closed!

This blog is being written in tandem with my book, “An Entrepreneur’s Words to Live By,” available on Amazon.com in paperback and Kindle (My Book), as well as being available in all of the other major eBook formats.

Sabotage?

We’ve all seen the World War II movies where U.S. soldiers crept behind enemy lines and blew up bridges, tunnels and other elements of infrastructure. We hold our breath as our boys used cunning and guile to defeat the Germans at every turn. This was classic sabotage at its finest.

Would you believe that entrepreneurial leaders can sometimes be saboteurs too? Are you wondering how? Consider this. Nathan owns an internet marketing company with 24 employees. He has a couple of up-and-comers on the team. Nathan is a strong, hard-charging Type-A personality and is quite a taskmaster. He seldom expresses his gratitude to his rising stars. Instead, he can be hypercritical at times. Nathan claims that he is simply trying to push his best and brightest to excel. Because of his sense of urgency he tends to issue instructions in a rapid-fire manner. When mistakes are made, Nathan becomes impatient and can even unleash a tirade that is directed in a very personal manner. His colleagues do not want to bring him bad news – it’s not that they don’t want to let him down, but because they fear his wrath and tantrums. On the other hand he can be witty and charming. And his company has achieved enormous success.

By contrast, Amanda started a consumer products research firm while she was in college and has watched it grow over the past five years to 35 employees. Amanda is also a high-achiever and a similar Type-A personality. She sets lofty expectations for her team and they respond by meeting or beating their goals every quarter. While it’s clear that she’s the boss, team members love Amanda’s collaborative style. Even when a mistake is made she remains positive and upbeat while counseling the errant employee. Amanda never berates anyone and is always supportive. She’s no pushover either – if certain employees continue to underperform she will show them the door. During a 360 review, the most common statement made about Amanda is, “I always feel that she values my contribution.”

The difference in leadership styles between Nathan and Amanda is very stark. They are both generating eye-popping results, but their paths are totally divergent. Nathan is a saboteur and is succeeding in spite of his approach . . . for now. But like a Roman candle that pierces the night sky, eventually it flames out and disintegrates. Nathan’s company is always in a state of upheaval. Drama is occurring at every turn. Employee turnover is high and if it weren’t for his two blossoming lieutenants keeping everything together, the whole enterprise would blow up. When the boss constantly undermines his team the implosion clock is ticking.

Strong leadership – the kind demonstrated by Amanda – begins and ends with positive encouragement. A calm sense of urgency replaces the chaos, and team members do not fear for their sanity (or safety!) when a failure is experienced. The basic premise is pretty easy to understand. Are people more motivated to succeed in an upbeat and encouraging environment, or one that is negative and subjects people to personal embarrassment?

The legendary Steve Jobs of Apple fame was an awful boss. Ramon Henson, an instructor of Management and Global Business at Rutgers Business School wrote this about Jobs in 2011. “It is well-known that Steve Jobs could be arrogant, dictatorial, and mean-spirited.  Despite the observations of some about Mr. Jobs’ arrogant style, I believe that he had at least three qualities that great executive leaders have: a clear vision, a passion for the company and its people, and an ability to inspire trust.  This is what I would consider his leadership character. In fact, Mr. Jobs not only had a vision, he made sure that everyone in the company bought into that vision, and this created a ‘higher purpose’ for the company that really excited Apple employees. Of course, his passion for the company and its products is legendary. And employees trusted Mr. Jobs – not because he founded the company but because he showed time and again his competence in many areas, especially product design and marketing.  And because employees saw – through his behavior – that Mr. Jobs was not driven by his own ego or by some self-interested needs (like the outrageous pay packages of some executives), they trusted him. So if Mr. Jobs was at times arrogant, even nasty, employees viewed these behaviors in the context of these underlying qualities.”

I believe Steve Jobs was an anomaly as a leader. That Apple achieved great results while enduring his leadership style is a testament to this outlier notion. In other words, “don’t try this at home.” The probability of success is exponentially higher when creating an environment of positive encouragement than one of daily sabotage.

You can also listen to a weekly audio podcast of my blog. What you hear will be different than what you read in this blog. Subscribe on iTunes or wherever you get your podcasts. You can also click on this link – Click here to listen to Audio Episode 58 – The Really Big Bus.

This blog is being written in tandem with my book, “An Entrepreneur’s Words to Live By,” available on Amazon.com in paperback and Kindle (My Book), as well as being available in all of the other major eBook formats.

Judgment Day

Question: Where is the fine line between constructive and negative criticism?

Answer: The very word “criticism” has negative connotations for many, so we’re starting from minus territory to begin with. Why? Because criticism is often associated with hurtful, manipulative language. Think about a situation where you feel like you’ve received negative criticism. How does a statement like this feel? “You really screwed up that presentation. You offended the client and couldn’t close the deal. I should have had someone else handle this assignment.” Wow. This sounds like a direct attack on you as a person. It’s no wonder that this type of criticism is not received favorably.

As entrepreneurs we must have thick skin in order to receive criticism of all types. And we must also be able to deliver criticism – but only in a constructive manner. First consider the audience. To deliver constructive criticism it must be perceived as constructive by the receiver. If this person is a highly resilient individual, your criticism may need to be offered more directly and bluntly. Conversely, someone who tends to be more sensitive may need to receive constructive criticism a bit more subtly.

Second, we must measure the intent of our criticism. Do we truly desire to be honest and constructive with what we have to say? Or do we want to send a message of disapproval in order to make the other person feel badly? Sometimes in our personal relationships – with a spouse or significant other – we may have a tendency to be less constructive and our criticism becomes hurtful.

Finally, constructive and effective criticism should always contain some suggestion for improvement. When this is done, our criticism can be perceived as helpful and positive. For example, the statement we read earlier could be modified as follows. “May I make a suggestion? The client may have been offended during the presentation because he thought we were ignoring his needs. The next time, you might consider spending a few moments reviewing the client’s specific needs and then show him how our product meets those needs.” There’s no mistaking that this is a positive and constructive dialogue and will most likely be perceived as intended.

Criticism should be focused on what someone has done or is doing, rather than the person himself. By being honest and appropriately sensitive to another’s feelings, criticism can be used as a positive and productive tool for improvement.

This blog is being written in tandem with my book, “An Entrepreneur’s Words to Live By,” available on Amazon.com in paperback and Kindle (My Book), as well as being available in all of the other major eBook formats.

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