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.