Monday, September 1, 2014

When the Two Richest Americans (Ever) Met

"When Commodore Vanderbilt began the world he had nothing, and there were no steamboats or railroads."

So begins one of the seminal pieces of business journalism, Henry Demarest Lloyd's Story of a Great Monopoly, published by "The Atlantic" in 1881.  "When he died," Demarest continued, "railroads had become the greatest force in modern industry, and Vanderbilt was the richest man in Europe or America, and the largest owner of railroads in the world.  He used the finest business brain of his day and the franchise of the state to build up a kingdom within the republic."

In 2007 the New York Times published a graphic showing the thirty or so wealthiest Americans, their accumulated riches measured as a percentage of the economy.  On the Times list, Vanderbilt is shown as the second richest American ever, topped only by one John D. Rockefeller.

Monday, August 4, 2014

Stuff I've Been Reading - July/Aug 2014

The Roxbury Russet, the oldest apple cultivar in the US
This blog is now seven years and more than 400 articles old.  I suspect I've written about 550 posts in all and removed 150 of them over time, with another 150 silly or otherwise embarrassing posts still to be pruned.  My pace has slowed to about one article a week in the last few years as I've been writing more intensively for other venues, including research and drafts for My Alleged Book (MAB).  With those trends, a back-of-the-envelope says at this time next year I'll have written 50 more articles and have a hundred less posted.  I'm proud to say that kind of trajectory puts me in league with government spending and technology start-ups.

In the course of my reading for fun and profit this last month I've stumbled upon more than a few articles and books of interest.  For instance, I've been hot on the trail of John Chapman (aka Johnny Appleseed) for MAB and stumbled upon Michael Pollan's The Botany of Desire: A Plant's-Eye View of World (2001).  I used to feel badly when I discovered a great, topical book a decade or more after its publication, but I understand better now the impossibility of just trying to keep up.  Botany is divided into four chapters--apples, tulips, pot and potatoes--and my particular interest was in the first, where Pollan traces the path of Chapman through the Midwest.  I grew up with two apple trees in our backyard and probably have had apples in our home refrigerator every day of my life, but this I did not know: apple seeds have an extreme case of botanical variability, or heterozygosity.  That means you can be virtually certain that if you plant the seed of, say, a Gala apple, you will get almost any variety of apple except a Gala.  Each seed has the genetic material of all the apple varieties ever grown, and then some.  If you want a Gala apple you have to graft.  The other thing I learned from Pollan is that the Roxbury Russet is the oldest apple cultivar grown in the United States.  So, liking all things historical and many things apple--and to my knowledge never having eaten one--that goes on my fall bucket list.  

Friday, July 25, 2014

Fortune 50 and Genealogy Collide: Carrier and Otis Cousins

The video below was just one of the happy "unintended consequences" from all the research the Carrier team did in 2011 to produce Weathermakers to the World.  The book focuses on Willis Carrier, the company he built, and the rise of modern air conditioning.  But the research spanned far and wide, including time spent investigating Carrier's family roots via New England (including his Salem "witch" ancestor).

In the course of that research, one of the attentive leaders at UTC spotted the fact that Willis Carrier's maternal great-grandmother was an "Otis."  With that tidbit, we turned to the professionals at NEHGS.  The rest, as they say, was history.

It's fun to see two of my favorite organizations, one dedicated to mining the past (but with a great, forward-looking strategic planning process) and the other focused on the future (but dedicated to preserving its history), collide in such a fascinating way.

In fact, it's the theme of this blog: A little business.  A little history.  A little business history.

The full press release is here.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

A Picture Tour of the Saugus Iron Works

Dozens of these b&w signs were placed along
Massachusetts roads in 1930.  Many have since
disappeared, though some remain.  There's a
great photo collection here and a book about the
project here.  This one is preserved in the
museum of the Saugus Iron Works.
Last November when I visited the Lowell Mills I noted how special it was for someone interested in the history of technology to live in New England, the epicenter of the American Industrial Revolution.  In fact, I probably haven't taken advantage of location the way I should; in particular, I still need to head west to the Springfield Armory, south to the Slater Mill Museum and the American Clock and Watch Museum, the north to the American Precision Museum, just to name a few.  But last weekend I was able to sneak over to the Saugus Iron Works, a full 18 minutes (not including the 25 years I've lived here) from home to spend a couple of hours visiting the first successful, integrated iron works in the New World.

From 1646 to 1668, "Hammersmith" (as it was called) produced cast and wrought iron products for the American colonies in a state-of-the-art facility along the Saugus River.  When the company disbanded, the site was abandoned and eventually buried by time and the river.

Hammersmith was rescued in 1946 by a grass-roots organization called the First Iron Works Association.  With funding from the American Iron and Steel Institute, the Association hired archaeologist Roland Robbins (also known as the man who found Thoreau's cabin at Walden and who excavated Shadwell, the birthplace of Thomas Jefferson) to investigate and reconstruct the site.   His work is fascinating; this 15 minute video, worthy of dimming the lights and a bowl of popcorn, shows Robbins in action.  You'll be able to compare what he accomplished (at the end of the video) with what's happened to the site since then in the pictures below.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

A Barnyard of Entrepreneurs 9: Where's Our Vision?

The hens were all gathered in the coop for the evening.  Rooster was checking ESPN scores on his smartphone.

Brown Hen leaned over.  "Rooster, do you have a Vision for the barnyard?"  She scratched.  "Every management Svengali says you need to have a Vision for your organization."

Rooster looked up.  "Well, Hen," he started.  "I guess my vision is to make sure the marinated corn feed crumble arrives three times a day."  And then he thought, "And that Black Rat and his friends don't eat it all before we do."

Brown Hen sighed.  "That's your Vision?"  She sighed again.  "A Vision is supposed to provide guidance and inspiration.  It's supposed to create an attractive future destination, one we're all marching toward.  Together."

Rooster leaned into his smartphone.  The Sox were up by 1 run in the ninth with two down.  Man on third.

"Crumble three times a day," clucked Speckled Hen.  "Sounds like a formal summary of aims and values."  She scratched the dirt.  "That's a Mission Statement, if you ask me."

Rooster looked up, thinking to himself, "Is there still a lefty they can bring in from the bullpen?"

"You're both wrong."  Red Hen rose from her nest.  "What we've got here is a Purpose Statement.  Three good meals a day--that's my purpose."  Then she chuckled.  "Vision Statements are just so 20th century.  They went out with the hula-hoop."

Monday, July 7, 2014

A Barnyard of Entrepreneurs 8: Just Like Magic

Rooster glanced across the barnyard.  Brown Hen was jumping up and down, a huge cloud of dust all around her.  She didn't look happy.

"Are you ok?" Rooster asked, trying to avoid the dust as he strutted over.

"Does it look like I'm ok?" Hen answered.  She stomped the ground as hard as she could.  Rooster saw the problem.  Hen was stomping on her smartphone.

"What's wrong with your phone, Hen?" Rooster asked.

"What's right with my phone?" she shot back.  "For the first month it worked perfectly, just like magic."

Speckled Hen happened to be wandering by and overheard the conversation.  "Arthur C. Clarke said any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic."  She beamed, feeling very wise.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Why I'd Get Fired at Dunkin Donuts

Here in New England, and increasingly in other parts of the country, there's a Dunkin Donuts on every corner.  For many people a stop at Dunkin is a morning ritual.  Work at Dunkin has also become a ritual for many high school and college students, who get their first exposure to the Great American Consumer from the business side of a Dunkin counter.

Recently, I had a chance to chat with some of these young folk.  I was surprised and sometimes appalled by what they see of the Thirsty and Famished who walk through their door.  God Bless America.  I am thoroughly convinced that I would last about two shifts at a "Dunks" before my supervisor would politely ask me to go home.

And don't come back.

Here's some of what I heard, and how the "kids" would like to respond.  You'll note I've added a few embellishments of my own--the really grouchy stuff--just for cathartic purposes.

1. Spare us your guilt.  Nobody cares why you're having a donut.  Really. We don't care if it's the first time you've broken your diet in two weeks.  We don't care if you "never eat junk food."  Please, just order your donut and move along.  There's a customer right behind you who never eats donuts, either, waiting to order.

2. When you place your order, please stop talking on the phone and texting.  Speak directly to us.  Give us 10 seconds of engagement so we can get things right.  Stop being a complete and total techo-boob.  Here's the truth: If you were so important that you couldn't stop conducting business for ten seconds to order, you'd have an assistant getting your coffee.  You're not that important.  Trust us.

3. And, techo-boob, please say "thank you" when you snatch the bag from our hands.  Most customers do, so when you don't it really sticks out.  It's so incredibly rude.

4. Enough already with the "cream cheese scam."  There's a dozen ways you try this, but here's the basics: You order a bagel with butter.  After you've paid and just as we're handing you the bag you ask "Can I have some cream cheese with that?"  You know cream cheese costs about a buck and we know you're trying to get it for free.  It is the feeblest, slimiest scam going.  If our supervisor is there we have to charge you.  If not, we might give it to you, but not because the scam worked.  Not because we like you.  Because we're really busy and it's the fastest way to get a low-life out of our sight.  For a buck?  Save your pennies and order the cream cheese next time, like a real person.  Preferably somewhere else.

5. This is not a life and death experience.  Really.  Once we ran out of lemons.  That's not good, we know, but ordering lemons is way beyond our pay grade.  Most people were nice about it.  One woman, however, announced at the top of her lungs: "That sucks.  You might as well have run out of coffee!"  We smiled and said how sorry we were.

Here's what we would have liked to say: Really?  Running out of lemons is like running out of coffee?  That bad?  Maybe as bad as we're all dead from the Ebola virus?!  Here's an idea for you, Dragon Lady: There's a Stop and Shop right around the corner.  Go get your own flippin lemon. And while you're there, see if they have "a life" for sale.  Cause you need one.

6. Finally, never, ever, ever order "a donut, a coffee, and a smile."  It's not funny.  It's not cute.  It's obnoxious.  We're generally pretty happy, and happy to smile.  But not on demand.  So here's the deal: Get back into your car, look in the rear view mirror, and smile.  Happy now?  And, pal, there's no charge for that.

I know with this kind of lousy attitude I'd only last a shift or two at Dunkin.  But--here's a scary thought--how long do you think I'd last as a barista at Starbucks, where the truly self-absorbed, massively entitled, triple-venti-soy-no-foam-latte-at-120-degrees Americans drink?  The ones wearing Google Glass?

An hour?  And I'd take the under on that.

Culture to Die For

One hundred years ago today Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife were assassinated in Sarajevo.  Nobody much cared for the arrogant Archduke, whose funeral was small and poorly attended.  Assassination was a gruesome if regular part of political life in the Balkans: Empress Elizabeth had been stabbed to death in 1898, the governor of Galicia shot in 1908, the governor of Croatia killed in 1912, and the vicar-general of Transylvania also assassinated in 1914.  Americans themselves had suffered the assassination of President William McKinley in 1901.  British magazine Punch published a cartoon with one anarchist asking another, “What time is it by your bomb?” 
Hungry for territory, the old, rotted Hapsburg Empire fiddled for a month and then declared war on Serbia.  Five days later Germany made its declaration of war on France.  The guns of August had erupted. 
We still scratch our heads over the start of WWI: A very small number of very small men, disconnected from their people and out to prove their machismo by territorial expansion, plunged the world into catastrophe.  The aggressors believed they could win a swift war but, as George Orwell wrote, the only way to have a swift war in the 20th century was to lose it.
Culture in Battle
One acknowledged chestnut from WWI is that the technology of firepower had outstripped communications and mobility.  Wireless was available but undependable, railroads inadequate, and countless broken-down automobiles were abandoned on the sides of dreadful roads.  Generals were left wielding million-man armies by dispatching riders on horseback.  By the end of 1914, this mismatch of fierce 20th-century firepower with Dark Age communications and mobility resulted in a return to that most basic of all technologies, the shovel, and the rise of trench warfare.
The other powerful lesson learned in the first year of WWI is that new ways of killing demanded that the very culture of battle needed to change, swiftly and radically. 

Monday, June 23, 2014

I See Dead Entrepreneurs: A Visit to the Mount Auburn Cemetery

I had the opportunity this past weekend to visit the Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge/ Watertown, about a mile and a half outside Harvard Square.  Authorized on this day in 1831 by the Massachusetts legislature, Mount Auburn was America's first landscaped cemetery and the first large-scale green space open to the public in North America.  For nearly two centuries, visitors from all over the world have come to experience one of the finest examples of what is known today as America's rural cemetery movement.

Other famous rural cemeteries include Mount Hope Cemetery in Bangor (Maine), Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn, Green Mount Cemetery in Baltimore, Albany Rural Cemetery in Menands (New York), Elmwood Cemetery in Detroit and Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond, Virginia.

Mount Auburn Cemetery covers 175 acres, 98,000 burials, 60,000 monuments, and 9,400 trees and shrubs representing over 1,250 taxa--part living memorial (with 600 burials a year), part history and part renowned arboretum and botanical garden.  "Rather than depicting the horror of death," Mount Auburn's literature says, the cemetery's "picturesque landscape. . .was designed to provide solace and comfort to the bereaved and public alike."

The horror of death (and source of an unhealthy local water supply) could be found aplenty in the typical 17th/18th-century urban churchyard cemetery, full of carved skulls and graves dug nearly on top of one another.  Here are a few pictures I took in 2009 on a pass-through the King's Chapel Burying Ground on Tremont Street in Boston--precisely the ghoulish congestion Mount Auburn hoped to improve upon.

By comparison, this is what Mount Auburn looked like in its opening decades.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

A Barnyard of Entrepreneurs 7: Hit With the Rich Stick

Big Pig was tweeting again, and it had the entire barnyard talking.

Nobody doubted that Big Pig Ventures was a success.  It sprayed start-up money in every direction like a giant pinwheel.

And nobody doubted Big Pig was famous, especially among the impressionable pullets.  He had recently backed the Duck's ethanol plant, which was the talk of the barnyard.

But on Twitter, Big Pig seemed to have an opinion about everything.

"RATS SHOULD HAVE UNFETTERED ACCESS TO FERMENTED CORN FEED CRUMBLE" Pig had tweeted that morning.  Brown Hen was incensed.  "What does Pig know about fermented corn feed crumble?" she demanded of Rooster.  "Or rats?"

"He did fund the ethanol plant," Rooster responded, trying to soothe her.  "That uses corn."

"And I stepped in my water dish this morning," Hen answered.  "I'm not tweeting about synchronized swimming, am I?"

Red Hen strutted over.  "But Big Pig has a degree in Computer Science.  And he is really rich," she said.  "Really rich people who can write software are really smart about everything."

"Until Twitter," Speckled Hen added, "we just didn't know it!"

Monday, June 9, 2014

A Barnyard of Entrepreneurs 6: Failure is Success

Rooster was surfing the Web when he stumbled upon a picture of Black Rat.  Rooster clicked, clicked again, and suddenly froze.  "Black Rat is an entry in Wikipedia?!"  

Brown Hen walked over to peer at the screen.  "Well, he did found two start-ups," Hen suggested.

"But neither was ever funded," said Rooster.  "They both failed."

"He was an Evangelist for Nosehole, too."  Hen grimaced.  That wasn't going so well, either.

Rooster responded, "That's it?  Is that enough accomplishment to be listed in the world's online encyclopedia?"  He read on.  It turns out Rat had also done a famous TED Talk.  "Once You're Unlucky, Twice You're Serial: The Immutable Laws of Failure," he read aloud.  "He gave a lecture about failure?" Rooster asked.

"Failure is good," Hen smiled.  "Fail fast, fail often," added Speckled Hen.  "I read that all the time on LinkedIn."  White Hen perked up.  "I think of my failures as a gift!  That was in the Harvard Business Review so it must be right!" she added.

"Failure is practically a cottage industry at TED," Speckled Hen pointed out.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

A Barnyard of Entrepreneurs 5: A Lesson in Business History

Rooster glanced at his phone. 10 a.m.  He looked up from the pit. 80 pullets were sitting expectantly in the classroom.  This was nerve-wracking.  He should never have agreed to guest-teach at his old business school.

Rooster took a deep breath.  At least he'd prepared an icebreaker.

"I want to take a little poll." This got the pullets' immediate attention.  Thanks to social media, they were good at taking polls. "Who do you think was the greatest business leader of all time?" Rooster asked.

A speckled pullet in the front row announced without hesitation, "That's easy.  Mark Zuckerberg."  Affirmation rippled through the class.  Three pullets in the back began chanting "Zuck, Zuck, Zuck."

A wing shot up to the right.  "Yes?"  Rooster acknowledged.  "If you mean all time ever," another pullet announced, "that has to be Steve Jobs."  She smiled.  "He was the God of Leaders."  The three pullets in back who had been chanting "Zuck" suddenly stopped and began chirping "Jobs, Jobs, Jobs."

Rooster looked around.  He could see mental gears turning.  Zuck or Jobs?  Jobs or Zuck?  It was obviously a profound question for this class.  "Anyone else have an opinion?"  Silence.

Monday, June 2, 2014

A Barnyard of Entrepreneurs 4: The Evangelist

Rooster looked across the barnyard and saw Black Rat standing by the chicken coop.  He had a small audience, never a good sign.  Rooster strutted over to see what was going on.

"I'm an evangelist," he heard Rat saying.  As Rooster drew closer, he could see that Rat had a strange plastic cone over his nose held in place by an elastic band stretched behind his ears.  He looked a little bit like a clown, but the disquieting kind that make balloon animals at children's birthday parties.

"What's that?" asked Brown Hen.  "What's an evangelist?"

Rat smiled.  "That's someone with passion."  Then he pointed to the strange cone on his nose.  "And I'm passionate about this!"

The hens fluttered.  Brown Hen was unmoved.  She scratched the dirt.  "Are you marketing something?"  Rooster drew in closer.  He wasn't sure he liked where this was going.

Rat was appalled.  "Marketing is so 20th century," he exclaimed.  "Old rats did marketing.  Dead rats did marketing.  I am a Chief Evangelist!"

Rooster chuckled.  A few months ago Rat had been a Serial Entrepreneur.  It was hard sometimes to keep up with titles.  He stuck his head up.  "What are you evangelizing, Rat?"

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

A Barnyard of Entrepreneurs 3: Think It and Be It!

Rooster sat hunched over the computer screen deep in thought.  Just then Brown Hen strutted in from the sunny barnyard, a cloud of dust settling behind her.  "Whatcha doing?" she asked.

Rooster sighed.  "Trying to freshen up my LinkedIn profile.  It's not easy."

Hen clucked.  "Not easy?!" She fluttered.  Not easy??  Why, you can be anyone you want on LinkedIn!"  Then she laughed.  "Remember Red Hen?"

Rooster grimaced.  Red Hen was a pullet who had upset the whole barnyard with her antics.  She had been a menace to the workplace.

Brown Hen beamed.  "She's a Life Coach now!"

Rooster sat up, clearly disturbed. "A Life Coach?  What's that?"

"Oh, they're big," Hen gushed.  "Thousands of them."  Rooster had a sudden flashback to his old nightmare of being stuck in a Tony Robbins seminar over a long Memorial Day weekend.

"Check out her LinkedIn profile," Brown Hen added.  "And her blog.  Red Hen is guiding other hens to fulfillment and happiness.  She's helping them find their true passion.  She's even written two books!"

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

A Barnyard of Entrepreneurs 2: Passionate Disruption

The animals were atwitter.  The final night of Disrupt! Barnyard was about to start.  
Rooster was nervous.  He had been asked to judge but felt out of place.  Last year's winner of the business plan contest had been an app that reminded cows to chew their cuds.  Rooster knew more than he cared to about cows, but he was pretty sure he couldn't have dreamed up that business in a million years.
Fortunately, Horse and Big Pig were also judges.  Horse had written a thousand articles about tech and knew his stuff.  Pig had made his name last year investing with two ducks in an ethanol plant.  ("Corn wants to eat the world" had become an important investment thesis at Big Pig's firm.)  Maybe Rooster would luck out and one of the final plans would involve corn.
Black Rat was up first. The crowd settled back, ready to be dazzled. "Hello everyone."  Rat looked nervous.  The crowd cheered, even the crows in back who could be counted on for a heckle or two as the night went on.  "I am a serial entrepreneur and tonight..."
Rooster stopped listening.  "Serial entrepreneur?" he whispered to Horse and Big Pig.  It didn't seem that long ago he had been chasing Rat out of the shed with the fermented corn feed crumble.  

Monday, May 12, 2014

A Barnyard of Entrepreneurs 1: Predicting the Future

Horse sauntered across the barnyard, heading toward the pig pen.  He had a clipboard strung around his neck and a stick tucked behind an ear, just like he'd seen the farmer do with his pencil.  The three pigs were rooting around in the mud for scraps, discussing an app they'd been pitched yesterday that reminded cows to chew their cuds.

"I really liked the team's focus," Middle Pig offered.  "But is the service a must-have or only a nice-to-have?  We are talking about cows, after all."

Just then Horse swung his head over the pit.  "May I have a word?"  He was the slightest bit hesitant.  The pigs had a well-earned reputation for being difficult.

The three barely paused, obviously irritated with the interruption.  They didn't have much use for the horse, who had, in the six months they had known him, never brought them so much as a rancid corn cob, much less a killer social media app.

"This is about celebrity," Horse added.

This brought the rooting to a sudden halt.  Celebrity was one of the few things besides slop (and killer social media apps) that could get the pigs' attention.  Horse knew his business.

"What is it?" Big Pig asked.  "And this better be good."

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

The Worst Business Decision Ever Made. . .That I Can Remember

In the May issue of The Atlantic magazine, "The Big Question" asked 17 entrepreneurs, journalists and academicians what they believe to be the worst business decision ever made.

That is not an easy question.  Human beings have been conducting business of all kinds for a long, long time.  I wondered, would the answers involve singular cultural moments, like the leader of a hunting and gathering band who dismissed farming communities as a passing phase?  How about a  Babylonian trader who went bankrupt because he wouldn't adopt the zero.  Maybe something terrible happened on the Silk Road to change civilization forever?  Or, perhaps it was China accidentally missing the Industrial Revolution?  If someone was claustrophobically, provincially American he might even offer Britain's introduction of the Stamp Tax, ultimately losing the American colonies, or Henry Ford's tragic misread of the American consumer.

I don't pretend to be a global business historian, but I love this kind of stuff and was anxious to see what the best and brightest gathered by The Atlantic would have to say.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

The Outsiders: The One Thing CEOs Need To Do Well

From time to time I've sat on endowment committees with truly smart investors.  I don't pretend to be one of those myself, but quarter after quarter I watched with them as the money managers came and went, the stocks and bonds went up and down, the markets rose and fell, the pundits huffed and puffed--and I listened really hard to what these investors inevitably and consistently said:  Most of the value in a portfolio is created in the allocation of assets.  In other words, the very first thing we did as an endowment committee--set a risk profile and chose our asset classes--turned out to be the single thing that drove the most value long term.

You'd have thought it would have dawned on me that this powerful idea applied to operating businesses as well--the GEs, GMs, and Apples of the world--but no, sometimes it takes a sledgehammer.  And that's what I got hit with last weekend when I read William N. Thorndike, Jr.'s terrific 2012 book, The Outsiders: Eight Unconventional CEOs and Their Radically Rational Blueprint for Success.  (Thanks to my friend, Henry Ames, for gifting this great read to me.)

Thorndike opens with a simple question: "Who's the greatest CEO of the last fifty years?"  Some people might answer (incorrectly) Steve Jobs; others (like me, who are old enough to be a little confused on his dates: Alfred Sloan).  But the consensus answer is undoubtedly Jack Welch.  Welch ran GE for 20 years, achieved an annual compound return of 20.9%, and outperformed the S&P by 3.3 times.  Welch also played at business like Lawrence Taylor played linebacker (ok, for those of you who picked Steve Jobs: Ray Lewis) with a kind of high-energy, smashmouth style that got him magazine covers and lots and lots of press.  Welch was a hard-charging, gifted CEO, but compared to a guy named Henry Singleton, Thorndike says, Welch "wasn't even in the same zip code."

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

The Education of a (Diminishing) Baby Boomer

One of my favorite books is The Education of Henry Adams, published at Adams’ death in 1918 and winner of the Pulitzer Prize.  Henry was born in 1838 and witnessed a steady parade of innovation during his lifetime, from the railroad and telegraph emerging around the time of his birth to the electrical grid, telephone and automobile so pervasive at his death.  Adams grew up in a country half-slave and about to be torn asunder but died in one that was a unified, world power.  He saw factories in old age beyond anything he could have imagined as a child, and a nation of disconnected farmers turned into a mass market of connected cities.  These changes were so dramatic, Henry believed, “the old universe was thrown into the ash-heap” and something brand new had been created over the course of his lifetime.  “At the rate of progress since 1800,” Adams concluded, “every American who lived into the year 2000 would know how to control unlimited power.” 

We know better, of course, but were Adams to return and play with a smartphone, surf the Web or visit an automated factory, he might very well think we had arrived.

For me to have the same 79-year time horizon as Henry Adams, it would need to be 2036.  For me to have the same perspective I would need another 20 or 30 points of IQ, and it wouldn’t hurt to have grown up the grandson and great-grandson of Presidents.  Or, as Henry was, be a brilliant writer and historian.  Still, on the off-chance I don’t make it to 2036, I thought it would be worth surveying my own ash heap—or more properly now, my Municipal Solid Waste Landfill-- to see in 2014 what’s been tossed of my old world, and at the same time, what’s been created anew.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

The Leader as Horse-Trader

From time to time over the last 25 years we would find ourselves in a cafeteria somewhere, facing an anxious group of employees whose company we had just acquired.  A few of us would smile, tell a joke, talk about our grand goals, explain our vision for the future, and detail how our nervous new staff would be essential to achieving success.

It became apparent to me after doing this a couple of times, however, that nobody was listening, or listening much.  Many were wondering if they still had a job.   Others if the new benefits program would cover their prescriptions or upcoming surgery.  Some worried that they might have a new title, a new boss, a new office.  They might have to prove themselves all over again, after a decade or two of work.  Would we honor their bonus structure or time in service?  And, hey, what about accrued vacation!?

We like to think of leaders as setting big, audacious goals and leading troops up the mountain to victory.  That's certainly the part that gets written about, the superior person who has chosen a path worthy of being followed.  But there's another critical dynamic in organizations having to do with goals, and not much to do with the leader's big, audacious one.