Sunday, March 29, 2020

10 Stories Great Leaders Tell by Paul Smith

10 Stories Great Leaders Tell by Paul Smith is a short book that covers well how to communicate a compelling message and he makes the point early on that it's more important what a story is than how it's told. A story is to be a narrative, and include a time, place, main character, goal, and obstacle to achieving that goal. Smith then provides ten types of stories, with examples of each:

1. Where we came from - a founding story: The story is told of Gary Erickson, living in the Bay Area in the late 1980s and running his own bakery. Erickson was a passionate bicyclist and in 1990 out for a long ride and eating poor tasting and hard to digest energy bars. At the top of Mount Hamilton east of San Jose he had eaten five of the six and was still hungry with 50 miles left to ride. From this, he got the idea to work in his bakery on a recipe for a healthy and tasty alternative, which led six months later to him forming CLIF Bar.

2. Why we can't stay here - a case-for-change story: Smith recounts the tale of a ten-year-old Gainesville, Florida boy diagnosed in 2013 with a rare form of kidney cancer. There were immunotherapy treatments available in clinical trials, but nothing approved for a child to take part in. Then in mid-2014 a new drug was approved for use and he got his first injection in October, over a year and a half after being diagnosed. The drug started working, but the boy died less than a month later. It wasn't that it not effective, it was that he started too late on the drug. Smith in the book writes of how a corporate client of his who produces lifesaving products that take a long time to get to market saw the story as a way to rally their company’s effort to get to market faster, it was putting a human face on the effort.

3. Where we're going - a vision story: Smith notes how "a vision is a picture of the future so compelling people want to go there with you." A particularly effective way to tell a vision story is through one person and describing what things are like for them after a vision has been realized. In the example Smith provides, it's of a sales forecaster who has the information people need, and how that impacts both the results and how she feels about providing them.

4. How we're going to get there - a strategy story: Just as in the vision story, Smith covers how a strategy story can be told as a future look back. The example given was of the manufacturer of a cold medicine detailing all the innovative things they "had done" to achieve a specific success metric, in this case passing competitors. Smith notes it can also be an "imagine if" story rather than future dated one.

5. What we believe - a corporate values story: Smith recounts a story of Sam Walton in a store of his about to meet with a fellow CEO, and having them wait while he was talking with a customer looking at ironing board covers. The fact that he did that conveys through a story how important customers were to Walton.

6. Who we serve - a customer story: Told is the story of a marketing manager meeting in house with a poor mother in Chennai, India, and how the story of this person and their relationship to the product so much more impactful than simply a listing of functions and features.

7. What we do for our customers - a sales story: To illustrate a sales story showing how customers can benefit from an offering, Smith writes of a company that puts on reverse auctions for buyers.

8. How we're different from our competitors - a marketing story: The story told is of a commercial cleaning company and how the effort they put into a new contract impacts the actual people who clean, through making their jobs both easier and more effective. A key part of this story is focusing on new customers and how their experience different than it was with the prior vendor.

9. Why I lead the way I do - a leadership-philosophy story: Smith recounts the story of a U.S. Army tank commander in a training exercise making a quick decision that was the wrong choice. Because the decision made quickly, others that he led learned from his mistake and it resulted in a successful effort in the exercise. Smith shows how this story more effective than simply saying people should make decisions quickly.

10. Why you should want to work here - a recruiting story: The story is told someone about to graduate with an MBA deciding between different corporate offers, including one from Proctor & Gamble. They talked to a recruiter who told them that people he placed there didn't later tell him that they worked with smarter people elsewhere, and that P&G promoted from within, so now as a new grad would be the time to be there. This type of story is more memorable than a listing of employee benefits.

Smith closes by noting that stories told should answer the following questions, preferably in this order:

1. Why should your audience listen? (hook)
2. Where and when did the story take place? (context)
3. Who is the main character and what did that person want? (context)
4. What was the problem or opportunity the main character ran into? (challenge)
5. What did he or she do about it? (conflict or struggle)
6. How did it turn out in the end? (resolution)
7. What did you learn from it? (lesson)
8. What did you think your audience should do now that they've heard it? (recommendation)

Becoming by Michelle Obama

Becoming by Michelle Obama was a compelling read from the former First Lady of the United States, with it containing a remarkable amount of detail about her childhood and the experiences that shaped her.

The book also covers well her time in the White House, including her advocacy for healthy food options and active lives for children, and provides a very thorough look at her life.

Saturday, February 15, 2020

The Ride of a Lifetime by Robert Iger

The Ride of a Lifetime by Robert Iger is a solid business book subtitled Lessons Learned from 15 Years as CEO of the Walt Disney Company.

Iger early on covers how after college he worked for a year as a weatherman and news reporter at a tiny cable TV station. Then he got hired at ABC as a studio supervisor on a daytime soap opera, with the job coming from a chance meeting his uncle had with an ABC manager. Iger has now worked at the company for 45 years, roughly half prior to the acquisition by Disney and half since. He's been CEO for 14 years, the 6th person to hold that office since the company founded by Walt in 1923.

Iger's next job after working on the soap opera was in sports, and he details how from working for Roone Arledge on Wide World of Sports, he learned about storytelling, using technology, and perfectionism. Also from this time is a story Iger tells about the importance of owning a mistake, something he notes later as an important principle, part of the aforementioned lessons learned to pass along.

Some of the most interesting content in the book is around how hard he worked to convince the board to give him the CEO job. He met with a political consultant who urged him to focus on only three priorities, any more is too many. The three that he pitched to the board were (1) the need to devote time and capital to the creation of high-quality branded content, (2) the need to embrace technology, both in content creation and distribution, and (3) the need to be truly global company.

 Right after becoming CEO, Iger worked to resurrect the relationship between Disney and Pixar, that had grown fractured due to former Disney CEO Michael Eisner and Pixar CEO Steve Jobs. Iger reached out to Jobs, developed a rapport with him, an openness to working together, and in his first Disney board meeting as CEO, suggested an acquisition of Pixar. This led to a purchase of the company for $7B in Disney stock, with Pixar creative heads Ed Catmull and John Lasseter also leading Disney Animation and Jobs becaming the largest shareholder in Disney. It was fascinating reading Iger surmising of how if Jobs, who he became close friends with, had lived longer they likely would have at least investigated combining Apple and Disney.

Iger also details the acquisitions of Marvel for $4B, LucasFilm for $4.05B, and then 21st Century Fox for $71B. Disney also acquired BAM Technologies, first paying $1B for a third of the company, and then acquiring the rest and using it to develop the Disney+ over the top, or OTT, service going directly to consumers. Overall, it was a solid book about someone who certainly seems a hard worker, waking daily at 4:15, and who also really good with the creative people who produce the content, recognizing their attachments to their work, backing them up when needed and even if it means release delays, having good work really matter.

Saturday, February 08, 2020

The Mastermind by Evan Ratliff

The Mastermind by Evan Ratliff is the nonfiction account of Paul Le Roux and his global enterprise he built that trafficked in illegally prescribed painkillers, hard drugs, and weapons.

Le Roux grew up in Zimbabwe and started out as computer programmer, writing code that would become the basis for True Crypt, a file encryption program used to preserve secrecy. He then started an online pharmacy operation, with hundreds of websites to order from and network of pharmacists and doctors shipping prescription painkillers worldwide with little medical oversight. Based out of the Philippines, Le Roux branched out into methamphetamines, cocaine, weapons and explosives, with an operation in Somalia and mercenaries who committed murders on command.

The U.S. government started investigating Le Roux in 2007, when DEA investigators looking into a pharmacy that appearing to be filling prescriptions illegally saw that the FedEx account it used was shipping orders from pharmacies all over the country, with some 57,000 orders filled over a three week period that year.

Le Roux was arrested in 2012, with the Department of Justice using him to "cooperate down," keeping his business afloat to try to nab his subordinates, perhaps in the hope that he would lead them to terrorist organizations, something that never materialized. Le Roux is currently awaiting sentencing and his tale is a remarkable one told in great detail by Ratliff.

Saturday, February 01, 2020

Consider This by Chuck Palahniuk

Consider This by Chuck Palahniuk is a memoir subtitled Moments in My Writing Life after Which Everything Was Different. Palahniuk was a 1986 Journalism graduate from the University of Oregon and working full-time on the assembly line at Freightliner Trucks when his best known work, Fight Club, published in 1996.

Consider This is described within as a scrapbook of Palahniuk's writing life, including detail about his long-time writing workshop group and how the instructor Tom Spanbauer noted that "99% of what writing workshops do is give people permission to write." Spanbauer was also the source of the book's subtitle with his direction to "write about the moment after which everything is different."

Other advice from Consider This is to write in short, choppy sentences filled with active verbs. Palahniuk noted direction from a former mentor, Bob Maull, with "don't use a lot of commas. People hate sentences with lots of commas. Keep your sentences short. Readers like short sentences."

Also throughout the book were a series of illustrations and accompanying quotes:

"For a thing to endure, it must be made of either granite or words." - Robert Stone
"Action carries its own authority." - Thom Jones
"Language is not our first language." - Tom Spanbauer
"Readers love that shit." - Barry Hannah
"What dogs want is for no one to ever leave." - Amy Hempel
"No two people ever walk into the same room." - Katherine Dunn
"Great problems, not clever solutions make great fiction." - Ira Levin
"Never resolve a threat until you raise a larger one." - Ursula K. Guin
"You don't write to make friends." - Joy Williams
"If you can't be happy while washing dishes, you can't be happy." - Nora Ephron
"When you meet a reader, it's your turn to listen." - David Sedaris
"All workshops suck at some point." - Ken Kesey

Tuesday, January 07, 2020

The Ghosts of Eden Park by Karen Abbott

The Ghosts of Eden Park by Karen Abbott is a solid work of non-fiction subtitled The Bootleg King, the Women Who Pursued Him, and the Murder That Shocked Jazz-Age America and tells the story of George Remus, the aforementioned bootleg king and murderer of his wife Imogene.

It's noted that Prohibition allowed for liquor to be used for medicinal purposes, and Remus as a bootlegger would buy both distilleries and wholesale drug companies, bribe officials to obtain withdrawal permits to remove the whiskey, then hijack his own trucks and resell the liquor. By the summer of 1921, Remus owned 35% of all the liquor in the United States, with he and Imogene living in Cincinnati like royalty, throwing lavish parties including a New Year's Eve party that year which featured Remus giving $1,000 bills to each guest and a new car to every woman there.

Remus eventually is arrested for his crimes and while in prison, Imogene started an affair with Bureau of Investigation agent Franklin Dodge. The two of them siphoned off the family fortune and when Remus released from prison in April 1927, shortly after Imogene filed for divorce, he returned home to find the mansion emptied out.

Imogene almost certainly had attempted to enlist people to kill Remus and immediately prior to their divorce trial in October of that year, Remus shot and killed her. The remainder of the book is about the murder trial, with Remus defending himself based on plea of temporary insanity, and he often made huge scenes during the trial, wailing and sobbing uncontrollably. He was acquitted of the charge of murder, and then successfully argued that the insanity was in fact just temporary so neither went to prison for the murder nor was institutionalized. It was a compelling tale told well by Abbott and Remus as a character was written into the fictional HBO series Boardwalk Empire about whiskey running during Prohibition.

Sunday, January 05, 2020

Longitude by Dava Sobel

Longitude by Dava Sobel is subtitled The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time and details the life of John Harrison and his clocks built between 1730 and 1770 that enabled sailors to determine their longitude and navigate more safely across the oceans.

The book notes how latitude and longitude originally plotted in A.D. 150 by the cartographer and astronomer Ptolemy, with latitude lines running the width of the globe and longitude lines from pole to pole. The parallel of latitude lines are based on the equator so fixed by nature, whereas meridian of longitude lines set from an arbitrary spot, for the past several hundred years Greenwich, England.

Sobel notes this difference in how the lines set made it so that sailors could fairly easily gauge their latitude by the sun and length of the day, enabling easy straight east to west travel or vice versa, but it was much more difficult to determine one's longitude.

The two ways to ascertain longitude at sea were via a lunar method, tracking against the stars, but this difficult to do effectively given cloudy nights and the amount of calculation required, and via keeping time aboard ship as well as the time at a separate place of known longitude. From this time difference, one could calculate the degrees traveled and know the location. The problem with this method was having a timepiece that worked as it should, with them rendered unreliable by changes in barometric pressure, temperature extremes, or simply rolling of the ship.

In response to this situation, English Parliament offered the Longitude Act of 1714, stipulating the award of a large monetary prize to anyone that could make possible the accurate determination of one's longitude while at sea. Sobel details how the aforementioned John Harrison accomplished this task via the timekeeping method, building over four decades five revolutionary chronometers, H-1 through H-5. Also noted in the book was how Harrison's had to contend with people who advocated for a lunar solution trying to thwart his superior effort.

Saturday, December 07, 2019

Working by Robert Caro

Working by Robert Caro was an excellent book on his approach to writing from the acclaimed author of The Power Broker on Robert Moses and The Path to Power, Means of Ascent, Master of the Senate, and The Passage of Power, all on Lyndon Johnson. This latest book felt to have two different main ideas covered in it, what Caro wanted to show in his prior works, and how he went about producing the writing.

Goal of his works

Caro noted how he wrote on Moses as well Johnson to provide a view into political power, how it's gained, wielded, and the impact it has on people, first at a regional level with Moses and then national with Johnson.

Moses shaped New York City and surrounding areas for some four decades as an unelected public official, both for good in spearheading the building of roads and parks, and for bad in displacing hundreds of thousands from their homes. One example written of by Moses was the taking apart of the East Tremont neighborhood to build the Cross-Bronx Expressway, with it's routing not negatively impacting business interests held by powerful allies.

Similar to in his writing on Moses, Caro detailed the positives as well as negatives from Johnson's influence. He as a young congressman helped bring electricity to the rural Texas Hill Country he grew up in, then led the Senate for six years, getting more accomplished there than anyone else ever has, including on Civil Rights, but also winning offices and accumulating power through illicit means and presiding over the Vietnam War.

His writing process

Caro also covered how he went about his work, with early in his career learning from a boss the need to "turn every page" in investigative reporting. This resulted in things including Caro spending seven years, and doing at least 522 interviews, writing The Power Broker, and he and his wife moving to the Texas Hill Country east of Austin for three years while researching Johnson's childhood growing up in the area.

Caro noted the importance of extensive document reading on both Moses and Johnson as well as the effort he put into tracking down interview subjects. Then when doing the interviews, he would dig into areas such as what it was like for the person at a specific time they with either Moses or Johnson, and what things that saw around them... with Caro using this detail to try to help readers visualize a sense to place. He also noted wearing a suit to his office to write, as a reminder that it's a job he's paid to do, having a daily word count goal to hit, and outlining extensively. Additionally covered was his time writing in the New York Public Library and being part of a small community of writers there, and how important it is to have good narrative writing in nonfiction, not something that should only be in fiction.

All of this effort was noted by Caro as being towards the goal of telling the story of where someone came from, what shaped them, and how that influenced the shaping they then did, with the overarching effort being to use the stories of first Moses and then Johnson to explain how things worked.

Wednesday, December 04, 2019

The Life and Afterlife of Harry Houdini by Joe Posnanski

The Life and Afterlife of Harry Houdini by Joe Posnanski was an interesting book by a writer whose work I enjoy quite a bit and have posted on a number of times back to 2009.

Posnanski writes of how Houdini compelling in part because of how he's managed to stay so relevant to this day, with staying in people's consciousness through books, movies, television shows, and simply mentions of him, his name synonymous with escapes, so often in descriptions of how someone "pulled a Houdini." Also covered well in the book was how Houdini had many contradictions in his life, including lying about having been born in 1874 in Appleton, WI, when he born Ehrich Weiss in Budapest, and being known as a brilliant magician, rather than the master escape artist, promoter, and all-around performer who gave himself challenges and won at them, but not necessarily magician, that he was.

Posnanski covered how Houdini may not have done the impossible, but he very much did the amazing, and virtually every illusionist, magician, or escape artist after Houdini would have been influenced or inspired by him. To this end, the book covers star performers in the field including the late Ricky Jay, David Copperfield, Joshua Jay, and the duo Penn and Teller, bringing to mind a great 2012 Esquire article on Teller.

Monday, November 11, 2019

Unlocking the Customer Value Chain by Thales Teixeira

Unlocking the Customer Value Chain by Thales Teixeira was a very thorough business book featuring the subtitle How Decoupling Drives Consumer Disruption, with the things that stood out in it noted below...

From part 1 - The New Reality of Markets:

- Business disruption often isn’t necessarily driven by technology innovation, rather by a company decoupling, or breaking down steps in the Customer Value Chain (an example of a four step CVC being: evaluate, choose, purchase, and consume), and then fulfilling the need from a specific step.

- Business success can come from new ways, with an example of this Best Buy or supermarket chains now getting a substantial portion of revenue from manufacturers paying for prominent display space, or Costco losing money on sales to consumers, and making it on memberships.

- Innovative business models have to be more than simply the digital version of a traditional business. Instead, there should be an incremental innovation, leading to a disruptive idea.

From part 2 - Responding to Decoupling:

- Creating moats around your product, as Gillette did with their razors and replacement blades, isn't a customer-centric approach, and can be attacked by someone with a focus on the consumer.

- Established businesses facing decoupling threats can attempt to counteract them by recoupling, basically trying to force customers to not work with the decoupling. It's a risky approach, though, and an alternate approach would be for an established company to engage in preemptive decoupling. One way to decouple your own business is to actually rebalance, and then attempt to capture value, or revenue at the points that you create value, with the previously noted story of Best Buy getting fees from manufacturers an example of this.

- An established company in a market should calculate market share at risk due to decoupling, then if risk is high, calculate the cost of responding vs the risk, then if the decision is to respond, decide whether to decouple or recouple, and if decoupling, decide whether to rebalance.

From part 3 - Building Disruptive Businesses:

- A good way to begin as a disruption force is to operate on the fringe of a business, do well at a small aspect of the larger business. This helps in both having a focus and in not being as large of a target to take down.

- Growing as a business is about focusing on core competencies, and then moving into adjacent markets, particularly if there are things adjacent in the Customer Value Chain. Doing this can lead to growth by coupling, organically creating strong ties to the customer. It really is all about the customer, not innovation or competition, but the customer, and there should be incentives for employees to serve the customer.

- The idea of set-it-and-forget-it (SIAFI), where consumers receive products as part of subscription services is a fairly new and large consumer trend. 

Maybe You Should Talk to Someone by Lori Gottlieb

Maybe You Should Talk to Someone by Lori Gottlieb was a really good book with the subtitle A Therapist, HER Therapist, and Our Lives Revealed.

Gottlieb writes a poignant story of both her life as she examines it in therapy and the lives of some of her patients. The patient stories were done with permission of those written about and modified so as to not be recognizable, with the characters in the book John, a Hollywood producer, Julie, a young woman with terminal cancer, and Rita, a senior citizen threatening to end her life on her birthday if it doesn't improve.

It's compelling writing from Gottlieb that's both a biography about her becoming a therapist, working through and reacting to her own troubles and heartbreak, and helping patients cope with the pain of past life choices, pending death, and unimaginable family trauma. The book tells a number of difficult stories throughout and very much makes the case that in times of heartbreak, bad situations can be helped, and things can in fact get better, despite how unlikely that may feel.

The Secrets We Kept by Lara Prescott

The Secrets We Kept by Lara Prescott is a novel based out of the true story that the CIA during the Cold War worked to make available in Russia the banned book Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak.

Prescott imagines and writes of spies coming out of a CIA secretarial pool, love, and betrayal from Washington to Russia, and her novel has met fairly large acclaim, as noted in this review from The Guardian.

Tuesday, October 08, 2019

Talking to Strangers by Malcolm Gladwell

Talking to Strangers by Malcolm Gladwell was an interesting book subtitled What We Should Know About the People We Don’t Know, with some of the ideas from it that stood out noted below...

People often rely too much on their impressions, and too little on facts. 

Gladwell wrote of how people believe things they want to believe, often as part of them fitting into a narrative, but it better to simply look at things at face value rather than letting impressions carry too much weight in forming a conclusion. To this end, some of the stories in the book include British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlin meeting with Hitler prior to the outset of WWII and then proclaiming he trusted his statements about the limits of German expansion aims. Those who instead believed Hitler would invade Poland hadn't met with him, but simply looked at his actions and statements to the world.

Another example given in the book is judges who in setting bail "stare into the soul of someone," but would often prevent crimes while someone on parole more effectively by simply looking at someone's record and the facts of the case without meeting them. Additionally, Gladwell noted how we don’t do well judging in situations where people act differently or express different emotions than we would expect, with Amanda Knox as someone who was odd and immature, and largely as a result was prosecuted for murder despite the flimsy case against her.

Defaulting to truth is something that should the majority of time be the norm.

Gladwell wrote of defaulting to truth is generally the right approach, and how whistleblowers are an important and helpful segment of society, but things would break down if everyone a whistleblower. There's a cost to being a whistleblower, with their lives often filled with paranoia and distrust, and generally defaulting to truth enables society to function better and people enjoy their lives more, even given the inherent tolerance for error that results. It's noted in the book that the person who earliest suspected Bernie Madoff engaged in a criminal Ponzi scheme was a paranoid type of person, and just how debilitating it was for them.

Specific acts are tied to specific places.

Another idea from the book was that of coupling, how acts are tied to specific things or places. Some examples given of this are how crime often tied to a very confined area, and suicide often tied to the way in which it’s acted out... with the story of how the UK changed the gas used to heat homes, no longer using "town gas," instead using natural gas, and as a result suicides plummeted. Suicide barriers on the Golden Gate Bridge was also brought up, people who were stopped from jumping often didn’t commit suicide later.

These three concepts feed into the story of Sandra Bland, someone pulled over outside Houston, subjected to aggressive and uncalled for policing leading to her arrest, and who several days later committed suicide in her jail cell. Gladwell writes of how this idea of aggressive policing, stopping and questioning people for minor infractions, should be confined to high crime spots as it comes with a price to not default to the truth that people likely aren't committing a crime. The thing to avoid is taking an idea that's a good one in limited use, and then expanding it farther than should be the case. Additionally, Bland's behavior after being pulled over was decided by the officer to be evidence of her guilt and heightened tension much more than the facts of the situation called for, ultimately leading to her arrest, and subsequent time in jail where she took her life.

A Woman of No Importance by Sonia Purnell

A Woman of No Importance by Sonia Purnell was a good book with the subtitle The Untold Story of the American Spy Who Helped Win World War II.

Purnell wrote about Virginia Hall, described in the book jacket as a Baltimore socialite who joined the British Special Operatives Executive organization and established spy networks throughout France, disrupting Nazi efforts there both before and after Allied forces landed at Normandy.

Throughout this entire time, she operated with a prosthetic leg, and dealt with numerous cases of being either passed over or subjugated by men with her a woman and showed a great deal of heroism through her efforts as part of the Resistance, with a line from the book "espionage, sabotage, and subversion behind enemy lines."